Meditating From the Source

my-pictures-and-knee-010-001A while ago I was doing an online session with a meditator, and we were talking generally about what it is to practice meditation, and how difficult it can be to maintain a practice in the kind of culture we live in – and he made a very good point.

He said, ‘I keep wondering if maybe we’ve lost our way with meditation in the West. I mean, so many people are talking about it and there’s so many books and different views of the same thing. With all these different views it’s hard to know who to trust, and which is the right way. So I get confused sometimes.”

I thought about what he said and realised he was right and I just hadn’t seen it.

I was lucky – many years ago I decided on which path I wanted to take through the jungle of meditation and went straight to the source. And though, in the four temples I was trained in, I practised with four different teachers, and their methods differed slightly, nevertheless what they taught me was consistent because it all came from the same place.

But I could see how, in the current environment, with so much information around, and so many different views, it can get a little confusing.

So I decided to take him to the source.

Of the four teachers I worked with, my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, gave me the most simple and practical understanding of meditation. Unfortunately, he only wrote one book before he died – ‘Practicing Insight On Your Own’ so there is not much of his teachings that is not second hand, either from me, or his proteges, Phra Manfred (since disrobed) and Mae Che Brigitte.

But there was one teacher, though I never had an opportunity to practice with him, whose view was so clear and imbued with common sense that it was utterly dependable as a guide through the wildlands of meditation.

His name was Acharn Chah, and of all of his generation, I think he was the best. Luckily, he was surrounded by acolytes who recorded a lot of his extraordinary teachings as audio, video and as transcripts of his Dhamma talks, so there is a lot of his wisdom available online. It’s well worth spending time with, particularly if you’re looking for a clear view of the meditation process. Whenever I find myself a little lost, Acharn Chah’s words never fail to shine a light on the way ahead.

The most extensive repository of his teachings can be found HERE.

It was here I directed the meditator I mentioned before – and I strongly recommend it to anyone. It’s a place to go whenever you lose your way.

Following is a selection of quotes from some of his talks and then a video about the forest tradition he comes from – always lucid, to the point, and inspiring.

And if you’ve got time, I strongly recommend you read the entire collection of his teachings which can be found HERE.

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“Whatever happens, you endure, because that is the way it is. For example, when you begin to practice samādhi you want peace and tranquillity. But you don’t get any. You don’t get any because you have never practiced this way. Your heart says, ”I’ll sit until I attain tranquillity”. But when tranquillity doesn’t arise, you suffer. And when there is suffering, you get up and run away! To practice like this can not be called ”developing the heart”. It’s called ”desertion”. Instead of indulging in your moods, you train yourself with the Dhamma of the Buddha. Lazy or diligent, you just keep on practicing. Don’t you think that this is a better way?”

“The way of the heart is like this. Sometimes there are good thoughts, sometimes there are bad thoughts. The heart is deceitful. Don’t trust it! Instead look straight at the conditions of the heart itself. Accept them as they are. They’re just as they are. Whether it’s good or evil or whatever, that’s the way it is. If you don’t grab hold of these conditions, then they don’t become anything more or less than what they already are. If we grab hold we’ll get bitten and will then suffer.”

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“Nothing happens immediately, so in the beginning we can’t see any results from our practice. This is like the example I have often given you of the man who tries to make fire by rubbing two sticks of wood together. He says to himself, ”They say there’s fire here”. and he begins rubbing energetically. He’s very impetuous. He rubs on and on but his impatience doesn’t end. He wants to have that fire. He keeps wanting to have that fire, but the fire doesn’t come. So he gets discouraged and stops to rest for awhile.

He starts again but the going is slow, so he rests again. By then the heat has disappeared; he didn’t keep at it long enough. He rubs and rubs until he tires and then he stops altogether. Not only is he tired, but he becomes more and more discouraged until he gives up completely. ”There’s no fire here!” Actually he was doing the work, but there wasn’t enough heat to start a fire. The fire was there all the time but he didn’t carry on to the end. This sort of experience causes the meditator to get discouraged in his practice, and so he restlessly changes from one practice to another. And this sort of experience is also similar to our own practice. It’s the same for everybody.”

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“…. both happiness and unhappiness are not peaceful states. The Buddha taught to let go of both of them. This is right practice. This is the Middle Way.

These words ‘the Middle Way’ do not refer to our body and speech, they refer to the mind. When a mental impression which we don’t like arises, it affects the mind and there is confusion. When the mind is confused, when it’s ‘shaken up’, this is not the right way. When a mental impression arises which we like, the mind goes to indulgence in pleasure – that’s not the way either.

We people don’t want suffering, we want happiness. But in fact happiness is just a refined form of suffering. Suffering itself is the coarse form. You can compare them to a snake. The head of the snake is unhappiness, the tail of the snake is happiness. The head of the snake is really dangerous, it has the poisonous fangs. If you touch it, the snake will bite straight away. But never mind the head, even if you go and hold onto the tail, it will turn around and bite you just the same, because both the head and the tail belong to the one snake.

In the same way, both happiness and unhappiness, or pleasure and sadness, arise from the same parent – wanting. So when you’re happy the mind isn’t peaceful. It really isn’t! For instance, when we get the things we like, such as wealth, prestige, praise or happiness, we become pleased as a result. But the mind still harbours some uneasiness because we’re afraid of losing it. That very fear isn’t a peaceful state. Later on we may actually lose that thing and then we really suffer.

Thus, if you aren’t aware, even if you’re happy, suffering is imminent. It’s just the same as grabbing the snake’s tail – if you don’t let go it will bite. So whether it’s the snake’s tail or its head, that is, wholesome or unwholesome conditions, they’re all just characteristics of the Wheel of Existence, of endless change.”

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If you’d like a more comprehensive list of Acharn Chah’s quotes, I have compiled a pdf (about 8 pages). It’s a wonderful resource to have, to refer to. I always find something to set of a little explosion of understanding in my head. You can download it from HERE

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LINKS

Meditation the Journey

recent-007” The things that trouble our spirits are within us already. In meditation, we must face them, accept them, and set them aside one by one.

Cristopher Bennett

I was thumbing through a popular tabloid news paper on the weekend, and in the middle pages, in the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ section, I noticed another article on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. The central theme of the article was ‘the meditation experience’, which it described in terms of ‘calm’ and ‘peace’, and ‘clearing the mind’ by developing ‘single pointed concentration’.

I read this with an increasing sense of despair, because yet again, it glibly reinforced the misconceptions and myths that have cursed meditation ever since it was imported from Asia a few hundred years ago. This focus on the ‘meditation experience’ as a pre-requisite to any transformation that might occur is incredibly destructive – yet it preoccupies almost the entire conversation around meditation in the West.

But, I suppose, as I think further, I understand how it happened. The imperatives of our mercantile culture, in which everything is reduced to its most saleable aspect, always prevail – and meditation has, like everything else in our world, become a product.

The origins of meditation in Asia were essentially and solely spiritual – people meditated to progress along a path to enlightenment. And enlightenment was commonly viewed as the ultimate aspiration in a life. As such, anyone embarking on the difficult journey to enlightenment was universally supported, and meditation was taught freely. The community supported the monks, wandering sadhus and holy-men, simply because they recognised and respected the incredible commitment and inner strength it required to embark on such an endeavour.

Meditation was simply a means to an end – not an end in itself. And the ‘meditation experience’ was not considered significant, except as an indicator of progress, and what needed next to be done. It was accepted that, as the meditator began and progressed, they would meet aspects of their sense of self that were painful, confronting or simply deceptive – problems along the way that would need solutions.

And the many methods and strategies that evolved throughout the history of meditation, became tools to be used to navigate through those various problems.

Then meditation was imported to the West.
And along with many other imports from ‘the exotic east’, in line with our habit of commodifying everything, the most marketable aspect of meditation was the possibility of ‘an experience’, and ‘the getting of calm’. Key terms were used – bliss, tranquillity, oneness, natural high, and so on. Instead of being a powerful medium of self realisation, an incredible journey into what we’re made of, meditation became simply another therapy among many to soothe our pain and fill the holes we felt in our hearts.

Essentially, meditation was reduced to being a product – a kind of natural Aspirin or Prozac. Either that or a spiritual sideshow in the carnival of sideshows that became ‘The New Age’.

People bought the product in the same way they bought pills or a massage, and they wanted what was on the brochure – to stop thinking and be instantly relaxed and calm.
Result being, the entire premise of meditation practice switched from self realisation to self-indulgence and the possibility of an easy escape.

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For sure, there are so many extraordinary experiences that can be had during meditation, in which it’s as if we are poking a hole through our personal reality, to peep into what we have hitherto never experienced. But what nobody tells you is that these experiences cannot be had with a couple of half hour sessions a day. One has to meditate intensively over a long period of time, to poke the holes through the walls of our life conditioning.
And even then these glimpses of the unknown are of no use.

The most useful aspect of meditation is the slow grind to change the stuff we’re made of – the web of habits and conditioned reactions that form the prison we live in. And the habits of a lifetime are not changed by an ‘experience’.

Life habits can only be changed through persistence, tenacity and practice, using the various methods that meditation makes available to us.

So at the risk of being boring, I’m going to say it again. The meditation experience means nothing – so please resist giving significance or meaning to it.

And, more importantly, resist the temptation to judge your practice, or your ability to meditate, on the quality of your meditation experience.
If you do this, you’ll only create failure – because no matter how intoxicating meditation might be right now, a time will come when you will encounter some block, or emotion, or a point where your mind will rebel against the changes that meditation is creating, and you will suffer.

And if you’re focussed on the experience, you will assume you can no longer meditate, and you will give up. In monastery life, it’s called ‘the rolling the mat’ stage – where monks roll up their meditation mat and give up because its all become too hard.
The irony is, it’s these apparent obstacles that appear in meditation that are where the real training and progress is to be had. As my last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri said, ‘All the fizzy blissy stuff is just waiting for the real work to begin.’

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Really, when you boil it down, a serious practice of meditation is simply problem solving. Its a long expedition through the jungle of the self, and the distant destination you’re headed for, is the finely balance tranquillity of stillness.
Stillness.

And all the so-called problems you meet are when one or other of our clingy, competitive, fearful, desirous, excitable life habits prevents us from falling into the stillness we unconsciously pine for, but have forgotten how to access.

So you’re meditating to learn how to let go of everything, to clear a space for stillness to appear.

Stillness within the storm of being.

And once you’ve developed a relationship with stillness in your core, you become a bit like an oak tree in the storm of life. And even as your branches whip and sway, or break – even when the winds of life strip away your leaves – with stillness at our core, the trunk remains stable, still and strong within the chaos.
That’s stillness.

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So as you meditate, forget what you want.
Pay attention to the journey you’re on.

Treat each meditation as an adventure – an expedition through the raw stuff of what you are, and what you’ve become. Not what you think, but what you feel – the swirl of sensations that you are, around the slow rhythmic pulse of the breath.
Feel all the sensations in your body as if it were your friend.
Smile inwardly at the mischievous tricks your mind plays.
Feel whatever feelings arise and let them pass on through your awareness, as your attention remains poised on the breath.

And some of what will happen will be incredibly pleasant, and some will be uncomfortable.

So, meet it all with the same quality of mind – with fascination, and compassion for this organism you have become.

Because all the chaotic stuff as it passes through is simply mind and body in process – healing and reorganising themselves like any field left fallow, or any forest left to itself. All things heal themselves and find balance if given stillness.
Each meditation, as you use the methods to deal with each obstacle, no matter how chaotic the experience is, will leave you just a little lighter, and more inspired.

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Meditation is Gym for the Mind

 

Lakshmi commented:portraits and stuff 005

“I am new to meditation and I went in with the delusion that at the end of the 20 minute I will emerge with a halo around my head and a “Buddha-like” stillness in my eyes. On the contrary, I can only physically sit still (often times even that is difficult with itches and pains) for 20 minutes and the emotions are all over the place. What is worse, I am my normal self (whatever that is) for the rest of the time..angry, depressed, happy, ecstatic…. I keep wondering if I am doing it wrong. But as I read you, I am thinking perhaps not.

I also read a post where you say why you don’t talk about the benefits of meditation. I suppose I was looking for it, for an affirmation that my life is going to become better with meditating, and what do I see? Just confirmation that well, emotions are not going to go away, and you meditate just…just. Feeling (there, that word again) discouraged. But given that I don’t have an alternate path (medication is not for me thank you), I suppose I must stick to meditation and stop hoping for something good to happen?

I am a little confused. And a bit scared too. But perhaps, that is natural?”

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Hi Lakshmi,

Your comment covered many areas worth writing about, so ​my reply is rather long. Sorry about that. But thank you for asking such an interesting, if complex question

​Before I begin, I was glad to read that you’re NOT going down the path of taking medication. Though pills and chemicals can seem like instant fixes, the long term destruction they cause is just not worth it. When I was a counselor, the most irretrievably damaged people I came across were those who had become addicted to the various pills that their doctors had prescribed for them – from blood pressure medications to statins, to anti-depressants. Drugs taken regularly usually end up being as debilitating as the condition they were prescribed to cure.

Also, I don’t think your problem lies in​ the act of meditation itself.

I might be wrong, but ​I ​sense a part of your problem ​with meditation ​is derived from ​the ​plethora of misinformation about meditation that’s​ floating around, most of it commercially oriented. ​Much of this information, spruiking courses and books, focuses on the ‘meditation experience’ rather than the long term benefits of meditation, painting an excessively rosy picture of how you should feel as you meditate. These expectations of a calm, peaceful experience then confuse the meditator when they don’t happen, creating doubt and confusion.

For this reason I strongly recommend you read my second book on meditation, ‘Love & Meditation’, available as a PDF download from HERE. In that book, I emphasize the long term benefits of meditation, and explain the process, so you know what it happening as it happens.

So anyway, lets look into what concerns you.

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PART I

“I went in with the delusion that at the end of the 20 minute I will emerge with a halo around my head and a “Buddha-like” stillness in my eyes.”

This is a common expectation among novice meditators, largely created by all the new-age blather that surrounds the subject of ‘meditation’. Ignorant people talk about enlightenment as if it’s some supernatural state, bringing bizarre super powers like a Marvell comic character. Also there are all the misinterpretations of Buddhist lore, in which enlightenment is portrayed in a very religious way, as it’s some kind of transition into a god and only those ‘chosen’ in some way can become enlightened.

All very misleading.

Actually enlightenment is very simple, and like any skill or art, it can only become a reality if one practices the skills that lead to it with complete dedication and persistence over a long period of time.

So what is ​this ​enlightenment?

​Like ​any skill or ability, enlightenment (or Nibbana) is ​a set of mental and physical habits​..

Put simply, it is ​a ​mind that has, through years of meditation, deconstructed all the conditioned reactions and habits that most of us are unconsciously enslaved by – social, cultural and genetic – and become pure again​, with a mind that perceives everything as it actually is, rather than as it has been colored by their conditioned reactions.

With this purity of view, desire and fear disappear because they are no longer internally triggered by internal reactions to things. There is none of the hormonal push and pull of desire and fear distorting their view, so their perceptions are always clear of the psychological coloring of emotional reactions.

As such, though their body is certainly subject to the limitations of physicality, the enlightened person is finally free. Free of rage, sadness, elation, greed, jealousy and so on. They are in perfect balance.

Of course, in popular media, we’re bombarded with the ridiculous cliché of the enlightened person being in some kind of elevated, mysterious and very esoteric state – bald men in robes speaking in riddles with super powers.

Not so. Enlightened people are completely unconcerned with whether they are enlightened or not, and have no interest in drawing attention to themselves.

In my decades of training in temples in South East Asia, I have known two monks who were known as enlightened men – one Thai monk, Acharn Thawee​,​ and the other a Sinhalese monk, the Venerable Pemasiri.

To meet these men, you would not have known they were enlightened. They did not talk about it or try to act enlightened. Both were very kind, and felt the cold and heat just like the rest of us. The only difference between them and me was they were totally unconcerned about anything except what needed to be done in each moment. As such, each action they made, and everything they said, was utterly appropriate and uncolored by ego or emotions. They lived to give and create unconditional kindness, not because it made them feel good, but simply because when all conditioned desire and fear is removed from a mind, all that is left is kindness.

To his death my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, both stern and kind, strove to teach the clearest view of meditation that he could. One could say he had so much to live for – but when he died, he shrugged off his life with these words:

“Who is dying? No one is dying. People say, ‘Oh, it’s Acharn Thawee. He is a good man!’ But I know there is no Acharn Thawee​.​”

To have known this extraordinary man is perhaps the most wonderful experience I have ever had, in part because it showed me how mundane and practical enlightenment actually is. And how attainable it is, if we choose to work towards it.

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PART II

Now​,​ the next part of your comment

“… I can only physically sit still (often times even that is difficult with itches and pains) for 20 minutes and the emotions are all over the place. What is worse, I am my normal self (whatever that is) for the rest of the time..angry, depressed, happy, ecstatic…. I keep wondering if I am doing it wrong.”

No, you are not doing anything wrong.

Everybody, when they first begin meditation, experiences discomfort in different degrees, depending on many things – how flexible their body is, what their life experience has been, and what kind of teacher has been guiding them.

Remember – your mind and body are simply bundles of habits – everything about you, from your posture and physical demeanor to your desires and fears, are sets of habits that you have learnt.​ ​And each of these habit-patterns create different noticeable effects.

The anxiety habit creates various muscle tensions that we recognize as anxiety​ -​ as does hunger, desire, elation, fear and so on.And on recognizing each habit, we then have another secondary reaction to it – mental habits driving hormonal shifts in our body that drive us to act in one way or the other.

Most of what we feel is essential invisible to us. ​I​n ​the hustle and bustle of life, we ​do not notice most of our reactions ​because we are ​too preoccupied our busy lives​​ to feel what is happening to us. Our focus is on outer concerns – work, entertainment, ​children, ​sex, ​food, money​ and so on.​ ​​We only notice ​what we feel​ ​if it is very powerful​ – when it​ poke​s ​into the flow of our everyday life​ and we find ourself angry, or depressed or sad or whatever.​

​Not only that, but many of us​ don’t like to feel what is happening inside us, particularly if we’ve built up a lot of unresolved tension and anxiety. ​​This is why so many people use drugs or anti depressants. Others use ​busyness, or ​​ceaseless activity​ or sport as a way of​ not​ feeling how ​they​ actually are.It’s also why some people cannot stand silence, or are constantly fidgeting or working or seeking fun. Essentially they are running from what they feel – running from themselves.

I had a man come to learn meditation once​,​ who in his life was a very successful advertising executive. He told me his entire life had been spent scrambling up the greasy pole of success​ ​until at the age of forty and now he was feeling a little dispirited and tired, so he decided to learn how to meditate.

He seemed quite relaxed as we spoke. But as I led him through the first session, about fifteen minutes in, he asked me if we could stop. I opened my eyes to see he had gone an odd color of ​pale ​green.

”What’s wrong?” I said.

“I feel horrible,” he muttered, then stood and rushe​d​ into the toilet where he vomited profusely.

Over the following weeks, he had terrible difficulty with meditation – nausea, aches, pains, twitching and a lot of emotion, particularly anger and grief. But he kept on going​,​ and gradually all these things passed away, as I had told him they would. Eventually meditation became a more pleasant experience and he was able to sustain a practice which, over the longer term, changed his life.

Acharn Thawee called this phenomenon ‘shedding the layers of the onion’. In this, he likened our self to being like an onion, made of many layers of karma (conditioning).

​​He said, “Just as we call the layers of the onion ‘an onion’, so too we give a name to the many layers of karma that make up ‘our self’. And we think all those layers of conditioning are ‘I’, quite forgetting that all the habits that define us, have been learnt – accumulated in layers, from our descendants, and from our own life experience.

So then we decide to meditate.For the first time in our life we sit down and stop. So the mind, with nothing to do, naturally turns its attention to itself – because what else is there to do?

​​​And being naturally a self organizing, self balancing thing​, like all other forces of nature​,​ the mind​ uses the stillness and relatively empty space that’s created during meditation to begin throwing off all the layers of reactive habits that cause it discomfort.

And what does it find?

It discovers the first surface layer of mind/body – the most coarse. Painful memories we have tried to avoid, aches and tensions we have not had time to pay attention to, and anxiety we have forgotten was there. ​L​​ike an onion, the​se​ outer laye​rs​ are the most coarse and most painful.

​It is these top layers the mind throws off first – the most coarse. And as the mind throws these things off, we briefly re-experience them. Physical tension, anxiety, pain, aches, and emotions are felt once more as they disappear.

Trouble is,  if we have been ​unfortunate enough to be ​stuck with a meditation teacher who has ​created​ false expectations, that we should be experiencing calm and peace​ in meditation​, we can mistakenly interpret this first stage of ‘shedding the layers’ as  something ​wrong. We can mistakenly assume we’re not meditating properly, simply because our meditation experience is not matching​ the teacher’s expectations of calm and peace. We think we’re failing – that we can;t meditate.

But we’re not failing. We’re actually succeeding.

All the discomfort, thought storms and emotions we’re experiencing are​ simply the first coarse​ layers of historic mental and physical tension evaporating – and once gone, we are free of just a little more ‘dark mass’ in our life.

Each time we meditate through a layer of this muck, we create a little more calm and peace in our life – where we want it to be. All we have to do is sit still and keep practicing the meditation method, which, if it is a good method, has been specifically designed to create and assist this cleansing phenomenon.

So here’s the thing- you’re not meditating to have pleasant meditations. You’re meditating to have a pleasant life. All you have to do is keep going. ​The layers will become more and more subtle as you keep practicing. ​

Try to remember, the beginning of meditation practice is the hardest part. It’s hard because:

1. Your mind and body are not used to being still.

2. You are experiencing the most coarse and immediately uncomfortable beginning of the cleansing process that meditation naturally elicits.

3. Being new to meditation, you are filled with doubts as to whether you are practising properly – which tends to create confusion, which in turn creates anxiety – thus adding to your discomfort.

To help you get through this stage I strongly recommend you obtain my Meditation Audio Course. It will help you understand the process of meditation, and help you through it.

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PART III

“I also read a post where you say why you don’t talk about the benefits of meditation. I suppose I was looking for it, for an affirmation that my life is going to become better with meditating, and what do I see? Just confirmation that well, emotions are not going to go away, and you meditate just…just. Feeling (there, that word again) discouraged. But given that I don’t have an alternate path (medication is not for me thank you), I suppose I must stick to meditation and stop hoping for something good to happen? I am a little confused. And a bit scared too. But perhaps, that is natural?”

Lakshmi, just because I don’t talk about the benefits of meditation, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It’s just that I don’t want to create expectations in people​’s minds​ – because I know how destructive expectations can be to meditation.

When you meditate,​ I want​ your mind ​to​ be utterly open to whatever is happening​ NOW​ whether it’s painful or pleasant – and let it go.

I do not want you imagining calm, or waiting for happiness, or wishing for peace, because this will get you nowhere – its the veritable dog chasing its tail.

Good meditation is where you are totally focused on the business of each ​moment ​as​ it’s happening – and the methods are designed to help you do that. So long as you do that, meditation and stillness will take care of themselves over time.

As the famous Zen master said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” By ‘beginners mind’ he means a mind that is absolutely without expectations about what is going to happen.

For this reason, I talk a lot about what meditation isn’t​​. And I try not to talk about what might happen, because I prefer people to discover that for themselves.

In meditation experience is the best way to learn. So the less you think about it, or expect from it the better.

​So​ yes,​ ​Lakshmi​, you must stick it out​.​​ ​You must go through the coarse layers of the onion. You must put up with the discomfort and use the methods to help you sit still and focus, even when your body is screaming.

​Because sometimes ​willpower is​ the only way. As Marlon Brando once said, ‘​Sometimes ​you just got to duke (fight) it out.​’

I take this to mean that sometimes in a life there is no trick or subtle strategy that will help us. Sometimes we just have to ‘duke it out’ – press the foot to the floor and assert our will until we’re in the clear and can relax.

And this does indeed apply to meditation​ when we first begin – and I think it applies to the beginning of ANY skill if you want to be proficient at it. Starting anything and seeing it through always creates discomfort, simply because the mind and body take time to adjust.

​Remember, you’re building a new set of habits with meditation. You’re building a skill. As such, meditation is ​similar to​ any form of exercise, being it running, tennis, going to the gym or learning to swim.The only difference is, meditation ​trains​ your mind, the most important aspect of your life. So in the same way as going to a gym makes the body stronger and more efficient, so too does meditation make the mind stronger and more efficient.

And the benefits?  Well, as I said, it’s better you experience them yourself than for me to tell you.

But one thing I will sa​y is this​. ​

Thirty years ago, b​efore I began practicing Vipassana​ meditation​, ​​I​ was in a very bad way. After years as a touring musician and dedicated hedonist, I ​had the attention span of a sparrow, ​my body was ruined, my creativity was disappearing and I was so chronically depressed I wished for death most days, and needed alcohol to feel normal.

I used Vipassana meditation to rebuild myself – or rather, to give my mind and body time to rebuild themselves. And in the thirty years since, ​I have written four good books​, ​I am healthy and living ​a​ full life​ doing what I love to do. And though some things might create anger, frustration or I might get depressed about something that’s not going well​, it doesn’t last long​ – there seems now to be a foundation of strength, optimism and calm deep within me now, which the poetry of my life dances upon​ – and it seems impossible now, for down times to overcome me.

So I don’t expect meditation to be pleasant. For me it is just ​a​ training ground – ​a​ place I train my mind to ​stay​ strong and resilient enough to be able to​ live​ my life.

​And if pain, or emotion or anxiety arise as I meditate​, ​I ​greet these things as interesting visitors, ​who I’m happy to see, ​because I know it’s better they are dealt with during meditation, than in ​the larger theater of ​my life.

I hope this has been helpful. Let me know if you have any questions.

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Becoming Mindful

new flower-001 “Most people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing that we call human existence.”

                                                 – Anthony de Mello

Are you awake or asleep?

Most people if you ask them, ‘are you aware’, will look at you like an idiot and say, ‘Of course I’m aware!. I’m alive aren’t I?’

But just because we’re alive, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we’re aware. Awareness is mind AND body together as one. Awareness is felt, not throught. As such, it’s a ‘now’ experience. Awareness does not think or react – those mental events always come later in review of what we have been aware of.

In our distant history awareness was the most fundamental aspect of living, an essential aspect of survival. We needed to be immediately aware of everything around us – sounds, changes in the weather and seasons, signals of approaching danger. We also had to be aware of each action we made – to walk carefully for fear of holes or snakes. To pick things up and put them down with care to make sure we didn’t disturb hidden spiders or break precious tools. As such, we spent more time in our senses than in thinking. We were truly awake – to use the cliché, in tune’ with our immediate world.

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But in the modern world our needs have changed. Now, most of our concerns are not to do with being aware – of sensing or intuition. They are to do with paying attention and thinking.

Our work, the business of life and the machines we need to use all run according to a false, man-made logic – an orderly logic we invented. So these days all we need to survive and function in this world is to pay intense attention to our orderly patterns of thinking, and which buttons to click. Only very rarely, if ever, are we required to be aware.

So in this orderly world we have created, our mind and body being the creatures of habit they are, they learn how to live our life without us being there. All the processes involved in our daily activities, skills and thought patterns – they learn all these habits, and obediently store them in the unconscious so we don’t have to think about everything we do.

So the child, having learnt to ride the bike, is no longer aware of the doing of it. The teenager, having learnt to read and write, is no longer aware of doing it. The adult, having learnt the skillset required to make a living, is no longer aware of doing it. Having committed our lives to memory so to speak, and no longer having a habit of being aware (as our ancient ancestors had) we leave what needs doing each day to our ingrained habits, while we think about other things.

In this lack of awareness, we are effectively allowing the unconscious mind and motor memory of our body to take us through our life, while being only barely present with what we’re doing. We’re quite capable of running through our day from waking to sleep, without the slightest idea of what we’re doing or how we’re feeling at any one time – dreaming and projecting forward and back in time in our head while unconscious mental programming and muscle memory do the things we need to do in every moment. Like long distance pilots on a plane, we sleep while the plane of our life flies itself autopilot, taking us through each day, and eventually our life.

And because everyone is doing the same thing it’s ‘normal’. And aside from occasional the feeling of being profoundly disconnected and numb, we don’t notice how unaware we have become until one day an extraordinary event wakes us up and we realize we’ve been asleep.

There are many stories about this waking up, but none more so than among people who’ve been close to death. I met a man once who’d survived being drowned – that is to say, he’d died and been brought back to life. He told me his last thought as he sank down into the water was, ‘oh my god, how sweet life is’. But more than this, he said, ‘I realized in death how I had wasted my life – that in the cause of money and security I had sleepwalked through almost all of it. And the regret I felt in that moment was overwhelming.’

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We have all tasted moments of awareness, mostly accidental occurrences. Awareness consciousness happens when self-consciousness is forgotten and mind and body come together in a union that always feels timelessness and incredibly tranquil. Perhaps it happens one day while lying half asleep on a beach, being lulled by ocean waves, or while deeply absorbed in a creative act. Or perhaps in meditation when we eventually reach that state of grace where mind finally forgets itself and the attention merges back into awareness and stillness appears. In those moments our sense of body-locality disappears and we become fully aware. And that’s when we realize that the awareness we always thought was ‘my awareness’ is in fact, not specific to only us at all, but is ubiquitous – common to everything.

Or, as it says in the Beatles song, ‘I Am the Walrus’: ‘I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.’

However they come, awareness experiences are always sweet. So imagine how wonderful it might be to live that way. Once this knack in living in awareness is practiced and learnt, we can then say we are living mindfully.

Because that’s what mindfulness is. It happens naturally once we have learnt the habit of knowing what you are doing in each moment – when the attention and awareness are acting together in equal parts, such that awareness know what attention is doing, and attention has the wider context of moment by moment awareness to act within – that’s mindfulness.

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The path to mindfulness is through meditation practice. In meditation practice, we are building new habits simply by practicing them in meditation. That’s what the meditation methods are there for. We practice constantly joining our attention with what we’re aware of – that is, our sensations.

In this, even thinking is simply another sense – simply activity in the mind, like any sensation in the body. In this way, as we practice, the attention slowly learns to let go of its obsession with turning everything into thinking, and begins to calm down. And as it calms, it recedes back into awareness and joins with it. And the more we practice, the stronger this new habit becomes.

And we become mindful.

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As we become mindful we notice more and more, that our body is continually speaking to us with sensations – not just the basic sensations of pain and pleasure, but many more subtle sensations as well – many of which do not even have a name. Our body warns us when something is out of balance by sending unpleasant sensations – aching, burning, chilling, itching, stinging. And it tells us when we’re doing something right by giving us pleasant sensations – tingling, glowing, warmth, cooling, rippling, and so on. At all times our body is making suggestions as to how to adjust what we’re doing, by sending us sensations.

Have you ever seen someone with a bad stoop, or terrible posture, or some other dysfunctional habit? And have you wondered why they don’t adjust their habit – stand up straighter?

Well, the reason is most likely they are not even aware of it – long ago they ceased to be aware of the aching muscles their posture was creating, such that now they’re not aware of where their dysfunctional body habits have taken them, because they are ‘asleep’.

The more mindful we become, the more we become aware of subtler and subtler sensations – sensations which we previously have not been aware of. And we realise that even in the simple acts of sitting, standing and walking, we have developed dysfunctional habits – habits which, as we age, will intensify and cause us problems. We also become aware of sensations inside the body – in every organ, we can feel how they are, and know if something is wrong.

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By far, the most useful aspect of mindfulness is we become aware of what we are doing, and the cause and effect consequences of what we do. Because the life-reality we create is made from cause and effect. What we do and how we do it creates the life we then have to live in. And if we are not aware of how we’re acting – just allowing our entrenched habits, bad or good, to have free reign, then we are living mindlessly.

And the consequences are obvious.

Anger mindlessly unleashed will create a life of rage – attracting other angry people, who will perhaps unleash their anger on us. Same with mindless melancholy, laziness or whatever. If we are mindful, we can feel these habits that don’t work for us. That is to say, we can feel the urge of the habit and in that instance, choose not to enact it.

That is mindfulness at work – the skill of being what you do, as you do it, and knowing yourself as you are, so you can change if you choose.

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Now, for those who have bought the audio course, I will be recording a very simple meditation exercise pointed toward mindfulness and I will be sending the download links to you in an email. It should be in your inbox right now.

NOTE:  If you have not received your email with the exercise, please let me know at chaosinaction@gmail.com

It is a simple meditation exercise to help you develop a habit of mindfulness. About 20 minutes long, it can be practised either sitting, or lying down. Once you’ve practiced with this exercise, try using the same method in as many ways as you can – when walking, running, swimming or even as you go to sleep – or doing a repetitive activity – the more you can practice in course of daily life, like any habit, the more innate mindfulness will become.

For casual readers, the mindfulness meditation exercise is available HERE …… the cost is a $10.

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Free: A Most Inspiring Book

downloadWhen I went to Thailand in 2000 to do the first of many silent retreats to train in Vipassana meditation methods, I was awash with information – things I’d read, accounts of other people’s experiences, different methods and views. And all of it made a mess in my head, such that I had a lot of trouble committing to any particular way or path into Vipassana. And in this initial venture into Vipassana, drifting from method to method as I was, and mixing and matching methods, I was not making progress at all.

I should have been committing to one method and advancing that skillset, and then, from a position of relative skill, experimenting if I needed to.

But I was impatient and my mind was very un-trained by my previous life as a musician – so, for the first month of my retreat I kept making a mess of things and getting very despondent about it.

In this, I think I was a very exasperating student for the monk who was teaching me, Phra Manfred – a wonderful German monk whose patience and strict guidance was so valuable to me at the time.

So one morning during the interview on the verandah of his kute, after so many fruitless arguments with me as he tried to get me to focus, he slid a small booklet across to me, saying: ‘Read this, it might help’

It was only a small booklet, the pages burred and creased with use. I read it in an afternoon, and it changed everything.

I had never heard such clarity spoken about the Theravada Buddhist way, and the place of meditation in it, and indeed, in life itself. The book is not about meditation per se, so much as the attitude behind it, and it gave me what I needed, and inspired me to give myself to the skill I was being taught. From that point, this book formed a core to my practice, and indeed, my life.

It’s not about religion – if anything, unlike many Buddhist monks, he was extremely unreligious in his view of Buddhism. It’s simply common sense and I strongly recommend it to anyone – not just meditators – it is a message of incredible wisdom and inspiration from a man who inspired Thailand itself for almost a century.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE BOOK

ABOUT BUDDHADASA BHIKKU (from Wikipedia)

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (Thai: พุทธทาสภิกขุ, May 27, 1906 – May 25, 1993) was a famous and influential ascetic-philosopher of the 20th century. Known as an innovative reinterpreter of Buddhist doctrine and Thai folk beliefs, Buddhadasa fostered a reformation in conventional religious perceptions in his home country, Thailand, as well as abroad. Although he was a formally ordained ascetic, or “monk,” having at the age of twenty years submitted to mandatory government religious controls, Buddhadasa developed a personal view that rejected specific religious identification and considered all faiths as principally one. His ground-breaking thought inspired such persons as French schooled Pridi Phanomyong, leader of Siam’s 1932 revolution, and a group of Thai social activists and artists of the 1960s and 70s.

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 (thank you to Bhuddanet (http://www.buddhanet.net) for making this copy of the book available.

Letting Go of the Void

colour8MEDITATION QUESTION FROM AUDREY:
I had only been meditating for a short while before I entered “the void”.

I was meditating in my back yard one night and I guess you could say that I stumbled into it. 😉 I didn’t have a moment of “ah ha” nor did I “scramble”. It felt like an endless hole (hence the “void” lol). My body felt like it didn’t exist. I felt like I didn’t exist.

After I finished meditating, I felt a tremendous peace within myself. Not only with myself, but with life in general. But, what I didn’t realize until months afterwards, was that I was disconnected with everything. I still went about my daily routines like normal, but I knew that nothing really mattered. If I lost my job, it didn’t matter for example. I was in a completely contented place within myself, but only because of that truth. After months of not meditating, I eventually “went back to normal” I guess you could say.

I began researching what I had experienced and came across people talking about “the void” experience during meditation. That’s the only reason I have a name for my experience. I didn’t like it. As much as I enjoyed the peace, I didn’t like the feeling of being disconnected from my reality. I guess my questions are…
How many people experience this form of “the void”?
Is it normal?

P.S. To try to explain better how I felt I will add that I felt fully connected to the universe, therefore I felt fully disconnected to this reality or time or the world (however you want to see it) because I knew how little it all really matters in the whole scheme of things. I’m not sure if that makes any sense or not, but it’s the best way I can describe it.

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Hi Audrey,

The short answer to your question is, in any sustained meditation practice, especially if practiced on silent retreat, the experience of ‘void’ is inevitable as the mind develops an affinity with stillness. But having said that, some people experience it, others never experience it. As my first teacher, Acharn Thawee once said: ‘Some people are ready, some are not.’

But I cannot comment on your experience, because, well, it’s an experience that’s all your own – and it sounds like it was indeed a wonderful experience.

And your reaction of not liking the effect of it is understandable – the effect of causing you to become unconcerned about your job and the life you are involved in can be quite frightening, when we live in a competitive word that depends on us being VERY concerned with such things to survive.

My only comment at this point would be, as interesting as your experience sounds, try not to think about it too much, or speculate, or place value on it – in other words, let it go. Because if you put this experience on a pedestal:  remembering it, savoring it, and expecting it to happen again, you will interfere with the naked and unconditioned mentality you need to meditate – to be still.

So whatever happens in meditation, let it go. Always move on. Never look back.

Because unfortunately, our capacity to hold onto expectations is a habit we have that interferes with our awareness of ‘now’. Expectations are largely connected to our sophisticated memory – as such, when we experience something wonderful and we remember it, our memory can be so vivid we want more.

And in meditation, as I said, this expectation becomes a hindrance, because it interferes with what we’re doing – which is, be aware of what is happening now … and now … and now …

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The only other comment would is about the word ‘void’.  I’m not referring specifically to your post – just generally, the word ‘void’ is a very misunderstood term, implying a state of nothingness, unconsciousness – and all too many people who have fallen asleep in meditation, come out of it thinking that’s the void.

But its not and nothing can be further from the truth.

The void is not a lack of consciousness – so much as a state of awareness so clear, brilliant, unconditioned and un-dualistic, that we lack the language to describe it.

It happens when the attention has finally let go of everything it usually obsesses over, that we assume as ‘common reality’ – of thoughts, reactions, emotions, good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant, form, non-form, right, wrong, up, down … and so on. With the attention happily still and uninvolved, we become unconditionally aware. And this awareness, as clear and brilliant and knowing as it is, has no language nor does it remember or anticipate – it simply is.

Hence all the clichés that arise from meditation – of ‘be here now’ and ‘beingness’ and others. All these clichés describe the void, because indeed, it is a ‘being here now and nowhere else’ experience. But with all its nihilistic connotations, ‘void’ is often mistakenly assumed to be ‘nothing’. But as I’ve described, it’s not nothing at all – in fact, it’s much more than we currently know – it’s everything.

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So, to conclude, in meditation I always emphasise the doing of it. Just do it. Don’t think about it, or wonder about what’s happening, or speculate. Just do the business of meditating each day and meditation will take you to extraordinary places – some pleasant, some unpleasant. But whether pleasant or unpleasant, treat them all the same – like a traveler on an endless adventure, every new experience is simply another bend in the path. Keep letting go and moving on.

And where are you going?

Well, basically, you’re headed toward a reconciliation with pure awareness.

Which is why everything we do in meditation has to do with training the attention to be still – this meddlesome, reactive, thought-generating aspect of mind which usually recived most of our mental energy needs to be trained to calm down and be still when we wish it to be still. Only then does the mind re-allocate its energy to its other aspect – the awareness.

And void will happen.

Thanks for the question Audrey.

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Stillness Heals Everything

Two BirdsAs I’ve said before, meditation can be summed up in one sentence:

‘Meditation is the skill of being still.’

The stillness I’m speaking of is not the comatose stillness we are in watching TV, nor is it sleep. In this stillness we are wide awake, but the activities of the restless attention are suspended, and the body is allowed to relax.

In this state all the innate self adjusting, self healing, self cleansing mechanisms that nature gave us are allowed to take over, and when we rise up from this stillness, we are fresh and ready for anything.

Stillness is something all things in nature take for granted – dogs, cats, birds, insects, fish, everything in the universe – when nothing is happening, they go still. They go still and enjoy it.

We on the other hand, have no such skill.

Our western culture doesn’t acknowledge the worth of stillness – only action, however mindless, is valued. As such, from the day we’re born to the day we die, we try to constantly be on the move doing things.  And in those rare times when we do nothing, our cultural guilt is heavy – words like laziness, bludger, waste of time – they all rattle about in the back of the mind making it such that we cannot relax into doing nothing, as we should.

So this is why we have meditation methods – to help us train the mind to let go and stop when we want it to.

And why? Because stillness heals.  It heals everything.

 

So let’s look at stillness for a bit, then I’ll talk about how it heals.

When we sit with our attention trained on sensations instead of thoughts – gradually the mind and body go still in a reciprocal dance between the two.

As the mind goes still, so too does the body.

And as the body goes still, so too does the mind.

When we first begin meditation, it takes a bit of practice to get used to this dance and let it happen. Old physical tensions take a while to unravel in the body as aches and pains. And in the mind, long forgotten emotional anxiety takes a while to arise and pass away.

Not only this, but it takes a while for the mind and body to adapt to the unique environment of meditation – to learn how to accept the process of meditation and surrender. Powerful habits of thinking and reacting keep interfering with the natural process of meditation.

But, if we keep practicing, like any skill, at some point our mind and body work it out and we don’t have to work so hard to meditate anymore.

At that point, whenever we sit, we settle quite quickly into an acceptance of things as they are in each moment, surrendering to ‘real time’ flow – where time-consciousness fades away and everything we sense becomes simply a succession of momentary events appearing and disappearing in a sublime stillness.

And the more we practice, the faster this appearing and disappearing gets – until eventually, things are disappearing almost at the same time as they appear, and profound stillness is all there is.

This is mind and body in balance – integrated and aware, and completely whole.

And in that stillness we find natural forces taking over, reclaiming us, rebalancing and healing whatever is out of balance.

Because in that stillness, whatever is out of balance shows itself – as pain or aching; as bristling loops of worrying spinning in the wide open space of the mind; as patterns of powerful emotion we cannot find reasons for.

Anything out of balance, whoever small, becomes obvious in the stillness and that is enough for it to be healed.  We don’t have to rub at it, or react or stretch or bustle off to the doctor or therapist.  All we have to do is feel it, and natural forces will heal it.

So … what do I mean by ‘nature forces’?

 

Beyond all the folklore and myths about ‘mother nature’, one thing is clear.  Depending on your position and how you perceive it, all physical manifestation develops in patterns.

Why nature does this is still a matter of conjecture, but the consensus is still the same: neither chaos or order is exclusive to itself.  Each has qualities of the other. Chaos and order are in an eternal dance with one another, each leading the other.  What seems chaotic when focused on from one perspective, becomes orderly when focused on from another and vice versa.

For example, the formation of clouds and the timing of weather patterns over a particular place seem to have no order when viewed in the context of a couple of years, or even ten years – but if seen over a thousand years a definite and very orderly pattern, a design would emerge.

Alternatively, if you stand in the outback desert and see the terrain, you would be tempted to call it a mess of rocks and scrub – but if you fly over it in a jet and look down from thousands of feet, you see there is a pattern.

Nature has formed itself into a particular design.

James Gleik, in his book ‘Chaos’ wrote:  ‘Nature forms patterns.  Some are orderly in space, but disorderly in time, others orderly in time but disorderly in space.’  And nature always adjusts itself to these patterns.  Pattern-forming is the invisible line it is always correcting to, like a ship navigating at sea.

So we see that nature, no matter how smashed and ruined, if let to its own devices, will reorganize itself into a coherent pattern – it will heal itself.

At a dinner party one night, I heard someone tell a story that illustrated very well the relationship between the presence of stillness and the healing power of nature. It was about two biologists who were hired by the Brazilian government in the late ‘70s to try to regenerate a large section of rainforest that had been ruined by a decommissioned mine.  The project was an experiment to see if it could be done.

Full of optimism, the biologists set out for this place, and when they got there a depressing sight greeted them.  The forest was so cut up it wasn’t a forest any more – just ruined trees and eroded dirt. The streams were polluted by chemicals, the wildlife had disappeared, and the slag heaps from the mine had washed down in the rains and covered everything, even right down the valleys, dust in summer and mud in winter.

The biologists told the government that it would cost a lot of money, and when they presented the government with the estimate the project was called off.  It was too expensive.  So the biologists returned to America and everyone assumed the forest was lost.

About ten years later one of the biologists happened to be doing some more work in the same area, so he decided to go to the mine site and see how things had developed. He drove up the road, but at first he couldn’t find the track into the mine site. So he stopped the car and walked into the forest.

It took him a long time to find the site, but when he found it what he saw was barely recognizable from the rest of what was now a vibrant forest.

Because coherent life had returned in that ten years.  All the wildlife, all the trees, all the plants had quietly adapted and re-established themselves.  The forest had been left alone and in the stillness that is its nature, it healed itself and equilibrium had returned according to its own ancient design.

This sense of design and ‘rightness’ is the preeminent quality of nature – an equilibrium between chaos and order that is always perfectly in balance.

“The universe confronts us with this obvious, but far-reaching fact.  It is not mere confusion, but it is arranged in units which attract our attention, larger and smaller units in a series of discrete ‘levels’, which for precision we call a hierarchy of wholes and parts.  The first fact about the natural universe is its organization as a system of systems from larger to smaller.”  [1]

This movement of nature towards equilibrium is a dynamic, a force of existence itself.  As such, if left to itself it will recreate itself according to the patterns it knows, the patterns it has been forming itself into for millions of years.  And those patterns are always the physical expressions of equilibrium, of balance, of harmony.

This movement towards harmony is the bottom line of nature.

 

So, you may well be asking how this applies to meditation.

Well, I’ll start my answer with another question.

What does an animal do when it is sick?

It stops.  It lies down, and withdraws its body from action.  Its eyes may be closed but it is not unconscious.  It has shut down all its volitional motors, and leaves its body for nature to heal, while it remains passively aware, waiting.

What do we humans do when we’re tired or sick?

We might take a pill, drink more coffee, curse our luck, or watch television to try to forget everything – but rarely do we stop.  Though we might manage to shrug our illness off in the short term, as we get older it becomes more and more difficult to do this:  our hangovers get worse, our colds last longer and our bodies don’t respond the way they used to.  We might say, ‘oh, I’m getting old’ as if that is supposed to be the reason for all our afflictions and physical tension.  But that is only a very small part of the reason.  The other part is that we have never given our bodies or minds the stillness in which to rejuvenate.

Unlike the animal, we rarely switch off and leave the mind/body for nature to work on, to find balance in its own way.  We don’t have enough time or enough money, or this or that.  There is always a reason, and it is at the heart of our declining quality of life, and when I say quality, I don’t mean affluence.  In fact, we are living much longer, spending more money, enjoying more comforts, but spending more time sick or unconscious, or distracting ourselves – trying to forget – dancing to forget, television or a film, or to a bar, anywhere to just forget.

Forget what?  Everything – our lives, our problems, our mysterious tension, our loneliness, ourselves.  We want to forget because we don’t know what else to do in the face of everything.  And all these things that we use to forget, the television, the films, the drinking and drugs, they exhaust us.  Yet we keep doing these things because of their powerful capacity for helping us to forget.  Most of our entertainments are directed to this addiction we have to forgetting, when all we really need is a little aware stillness to reconnect with nature and let things sort themselves out within us.

So let’s think now about the qualities of this stillness.

Have you ever watched a cat?  Stillness is what a cat does when it is sitting.  Watch it as it sits in a doorway, or on the grass, or on a windowsill.  Both paws primly placed together at the front, body in a symmetrical crouch.  It is tasting time as it passes, the sensual textures of the moments and seconds.  No thinking or worrying or anticipation, only stillness.  A sound comes?  The ear swivels to pick it up.  The sound goes, it’s gone.  Relaxed emptiness until the next sense contact.

No wonder cats look so good and exude such a sense of powerful grace.  They are practiced in the art of ‘being here now’.  Awareness and economy of function come naturally to them.

And as we practice meditation, so stillness gradually comes to us as well.

Like the forest, it is in stillness that we become rejuvenated by the nature we have spent our life shutting out with obsessive thinking and activity.  This is what we practice in meditation.  We practice aware stillness.  We develop the ability to stop every so often, and allow nature to possess us and heal the wear and tear of life.


[1] Alfred North Whitehead, in Rupert Sheldrake, ‘The Present of the Past’ Harper Collins, London 1994 p 55

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