Thoughts on Meditation
Monday, January 21, 2013
For this weekend's challenge, we had to come up with something we have been wanting to do or feel like we should be doing but for some reason we AREN'T doing. Perhaps we are putting it off because it's too daunting, or we feel we are too old, too out of shape, too fat, whatever. The idea was quit putting it off and Just Do It.
I decided that I was going to experiment again with meditation. I have been wanting to learn to meditate for YEARS. Seriously, at least 20 years, probably more. I've read all this stuff one why we should practice daily meditation--it helps us deal with stress better and be healthier and more centered human beings. I've dabbled with it a bit on and off over the years, but it's something I've never really mastered. For one thing, I had always heard that in meditation I was supposed to "empty the mind." Perhaps I was to stare at a a focal point, like a candle, and think... nothing. Or maybe I was supposed to turn my attention inward, not thinking but sinking into my body, or maybe floating up away from my body.... but what ever the case, I never mastered the emptying the mind part, let alone anything else. My brain never shuts up--that's one of the reasons I have a hard time sleeping at night, in fact--the more tired I am, the faster my brain spins for some reason! And yet that is why I wanted, really wanted, to master meditation---I want to be able to find that kind of peace on demand.
A couple of years ago, I took a meditation class taught at an SCA event by a guy who had just come back from a week long zen meditation retreat. In that class/discussion period, I learned that there are a TON of different ways to meditate, which I will talk about shortly, and that the goal was not to "empty the mind" but rather to relax it. It's okay to think thoughts--you can't stop thinking and shouldn't feel guilty when you do think something. If you think "I smell someone cooking something".... don't feel guilty about it. But don't hold onto that thought, either. Note it, and then let it go. THAT'S meditation. I haven 't mastered the letting go part, not yet, but I think it's attainable.
I've been reading bits and pieces about meditation for years, but keep in mind I am by NO means an expert! But in that time, including the class I mentioned above, I've learned that there are almost as many ways to meditate as there are different people on the earth, it seems. So I personally am exploring different options and seeing what works best for ME. What works best for you might be something completely different.
This I first heard about in the class I mentioned above, and I realized as he was talking about it that I've actually done this for years, though not in any organized kind of way. I don't sit still, well, at all. To give you an idea, back when I was an undergrad I wore this puzzle ring every day--and I would sit in class listening to the lectures undoing and solving the puzzle, over and over and over again. When I watch tv or am a passenger in a car--sometimes even when I'm reading--I'm at least fiddling with something, so I decided years ago that it was better to fiddle in a constructive fashion than to to just fiddle. Plus, I've always enjoyed being creative. I used to do embroidery, but that hurts my hands so I don't do it much any more... now I mostly do kumihimo (complex Japanese braiding), beading, and knitting, but I'm also getting into weaving, do wire work, and dabble in spinning. I had always known that making things with my hands was relaxing because when I'm making things, I'm really focused on what I'm doing--say I'm doing beadwork. I'm focused on the color, finish, weight, shape, and texture of the beads--how they look in my hands, whether or not they sparkle in the light, how the colors and shapes work together. It's complicated enough that I have to concentrate--which means I'm NOT thinking about what my chair thinks about the draft I turned in, or that I haven't heard back from a professor, yet, or how my friend fighting cancer is doing. And yet most of my projects have a kind of soothing rhythm to them--I don't tend to do really complicated knitted patterns, for example--I mostly make socks using fairly basic, repetitive designs, for example--so that I can just relax into the rhythm (I do have some projects that keep me challenged--I have a peyote "painting" for example" that is far from easy--but while fun and challenging and definitely interesting and beautiful, I wouldn't call them relaxing.)
What I hadn't know is that activities like this can be a form of meditation called moving meditations. In fact, I learned later, some of the earliest Japanese braids were actually made by Buddhist monks as a form of meditation/prayer. They would make these braids--often collectively--while chanting sutras. These braids were then thought to be invested with the power of these sutras and were, for example, placed inside of Buddhas. Looking back, I can see how kumihimo really lends itself to being a moving meditation--it requires focus, but it's also a very repetitive activity--once the braid is set up on the marudai or other device, you repeat the same patterns--again and again and again. It's a very, very relaxing activity.
Moving meditations can be in other forms, though. The guy who taught the meditation class used to do acrobatics--you know, tight rope walking, trapeze work, etc., and what he hadn't realized for a long time is that was his primary source of meditation as well. You have to be really focused in both mind and body to walk a high beam, let alone to do cartwheels etc. on it!
The most common form of moving meditation though is probably walking. Buddhist meditation in particularly really focuses on BEING in the NOW--try not to worry about that meeting coming up or dwell on an angry conversation you had with a friend the day before, but focus on what you are doing NOW. When you are walking, how does the pavement feel beneath your feet? How do your muscles feel as you move? How does the air feel? What does it smell like? Things like that. It's about being AWARE while you walk.
Yoga is also a form of moving meditation, incidentally--a practice where you focus on your body, your breathing, etc, as you move. The closest I've ever come to a truly quiet mind was as we were lying in corps pose at the end of the yoga session.
I don't know as much about religious meditations--especially the meditations of other religions--but prayer can definitely be a form of meditation, as can contemplation of religious concepts or texts. While Buddhist meditation--which is what a lot of people think of when they think of meditation--focuses on being in the NOW--many types of religious meditations focus on specific prayers or thinking about certain religious concepts or text--in other words, deliberately turning your mind to God.
I was raised protestant, but one of the things that I have been increasingly fascinated with are Rosaries and other forms of prayer beads. Almost every religion has some form of prayer beads, and all essentially serve the same function--to assist us in doing X number of chants, prayers, etc, freeing the mind from the act of counting to the prayer etc. itself. As I understand it, the point of saying the rosary isn't just to recite x number of Hail Mary's and Our Father's, but rather to focus your mind while citing those prayers to one of the 5 mysteries of faith. Personally, I find that really daunting--but I have toyed with focusing on the simple prayers as a mean to take a little time to concentrate on my faith.
If you are interested in exploring prayer as meditation, I would look up more information on google--I can't begin to do justice to these practices even for the Buddhists and the Catholics, the two I know the best, and I know that there are other religions that have their own prayer meditations as well--Muslims and Hindus, for example--that I know next to nothing about.
This is usually what people think of when they think of meditation. Typically, people sit cross legged, backs straight, hands on their thighs in a comfortable position (personally, I have to have some kind of back support to maintain this posture for any length of time--my core strength leaves a lot to be desired) and quiet the mind, usually by focusing on something.
For example, you might focus on something visual--such as a flame, a picture, some moving water, even a bright piece of fabric hanging on the back of a chair. You will have stray thoughts come in--it happens. Note them, acknowledge them, but don't hold onto them--turn your attention back to your focus.
Another common focus is something audible. Some of the meditation aps I downloaded have relaxing music to listen to, or you could listen to the sound of running water or, if it's raining or windy, the sound of the wind or the rain (I listened to the wind a lot this weekend, as it was very windy). My personal favorite though is listening to the sound of a bell--Tibetans have these special bowls called singing bowls that ring like bells that they ring when they meditate, and then focus on listening to that sound as it fades away.
A really common way to meditate--and again, something I've done most of my life to calm down (particularly, strangely enough, at the dentist's office, though I am somewhat amused that the only times I've been truly successful at this kind of meditating is with the assistance of nitrous oxide! Which, by the way, I don't recommend for your daily meditation practice. I want to learn how to achieve that relaxed state WITHOUT the happy gas, thank you very much!) without thinking of it as meditation--is to focus on breathing. Breathe in, breathe out. Feel that breath. Feel the lungs expand, and then contract. Feel the coolness of the air as it comes in, and the warmth as it is expelled.
This isn't *exactly* meditation but it's related to it and the Buddhist philosophy of focusing on the moment rather than dwelling about the past or fretting about the future. The idea is to pick something that happens periodically over the course of your day--it could be the bells at a local church, a periodic chime from a cell phone ap, the chime on your grandfather clock ringing the hour, whatever--and just listen to it and focus on being in THAT moment for a few seconds. I haven't actually tried this yet, but I really like the idea--liked it enough that I downloaded a mindfulness ap that has a Tibetan singing bowl reminder (what can I say, I really like the singing bowls). I just haven't decided how I want to set it up so that it can serve the purpose of it reminding me to be mindful without it being unduly disruptive.
In an earlier BLC, I focused on doing moving meditations as one of my goals, but I haven't even done that in probably a year. For this week/weekend challenge, I decided to give it a try again, as I keep thinking I should do it and never do. This time, I focused on sitting meditations.
I don't know about you, but when I read about people meditation for 45 minutes, or an hour, I find that REALLY daunting. For one thing, time isn't something I have in abundance--so carving out 60 minutes to just sit and do absolutely nothing, trying to keep my mind quiet and focused on the moment... yeah, really, really daunting. So I started much, much smaller. I think of it like exercising--sure, it's great if you can workout 60 minutes every day, but if you can't, even 10 minutes of exercise is beneficial, right? It's all about baby steps and starting SOMEWHERE. So for me, with meditation, I started with 5 minutes. Just 5 minutes. Anyone can find 5 minutes in their day, right? Anyone can sit still and focus for just 5 minutes, right? Even me.
The first day, I tried an ap for my phone called iZen lite with music and beautiful, soothing pictures. The pictures were great--the music, unfortunately, was not so great. There was this high pitched bell tone that reoccurred that physically HURT (it didn't' help that I've been fighting a headache all weekend and certain pitches are painful when I have a headache) so I would just get all relaxed and then think "KILL THE AP" or "MUST GET NEW AP." Um, while it's okay to have periodic thoughts and to note them and let them go, this was really not conducive to meditating. I did find out later that I can change the music, but with the free ap your options were limited.
The second day, I tried a different ap, called Meditation Helper. I liked this one better, especially that it offered a log and reminders to meditation, and it can put the phone into airplane mode to limit distractions, but for meditating itself, it's just a timer. It has a pretty, drawn out bell at the beginning and another at the end, but in the middle nothing--no music, no images. I found it hard to stay focused. I also found that my limit for sitting still and focused was about 2 and half minutes--about which point I want to check the timer (are we there yet, LOL!) Still, I sat mostly still and quiet for 5 minutes.
The third day, I tried a different ap--Insight Timer. Like the Meditation helper, this one was basically a timer; the free ap gives you a couple of choices for sounds at the beginning and end of the meditation practice, plus it connects you to an online community of people who meditate. I like the bells on this one--Tibetan singing bowls, to be precise (I told you like them!) better on this ap, but it doesn't have the meditation reminders of the meditation helper. The sound quality of the bells though is really, really good--and they ring, fading, for quite a while. (Actually, the sound quality on the Meditation Helper bells are really good too, but at least the free version gave me no control over the type of bell and it's a pretty high bell--the Insight Timer lets me select lower pitched bells).
I ended up however downloading the paid version of the Insight Timer, which not only gives me more bells/bowls to choose from, but you can set up interval bells. So I tried meditating a second time that evening, with singing bowls ringing at 1 minute intervals. It was a LOT easier to stay focused with the interval bells. The paid version also has more functions--such as shutting the phone down into airplane mode, and a log that tracks how often you meditate. But really the reason I chose this version over the other options were the interval bells and the bell choices.
Today, I used the insight timer again, same settings as before (though I changed the ending bell sound--it wasn't clear when it ended if the ending singing bowl was the same one used for the interval rings) and again, I found it much, much easier to keep a quiet, focused mind with the aid of the intervals. With the intervals, I didn't look at the timer once--without them, I invariably was peeking at the time at about half way through!
Anyway, those are my thoughts/experiences with meditation so far. I would love to hear other people's thoughts on the matter, and if you have any useful or interesting meditation sources or aps, I'd love to hear about those, too!