Sitting meditation Part 2

‘Meditation is not evasion. It is a serene encounter with reality.’ Thich Nhat Hanh

When we sit in meditation, we are, as mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘falling awake’. We are still and relaxed, but our mind is attentive. Mindfulness meditation is not about ‘zoning out’ or drifting off. It’s about being present with awareness, with clarity and insight.

That’s why posture is very important in sitting meditation – some teachers say that correct posture is 50% of the meditation. The posture sends a signal to our minds about what is going on – are we striving, or avoiding? Are we slumping forward, thereby signalling to our mind that we are not all that interested in what’s going on? Or are we stiff like soldiers on parade, trying too anxiously to ‘get it right’?

Finding the right posture, however, can involve some trial and error, as we all have different bodies, levels of flexibility, old and current injuries, and so on. Ideally, our posture allows our back to be upright and unsupported, neither slumping forward nor arching back. The chin is tucked in very slightly, freeing up the back of the neck, and our hands can either rest in our lap, or we can place the left hand on top of the right, palms up, with thumbs lightly touching. Eyes are closed or else half-open, with a soft gaze downwards, not looking at anything in particular.

Many people meditate sitting in a chair, with the feet flat on the ground, legs uncrossed. Sometimes it helps to place a cushion under the feet, to take the pressure off the thigh muscles. Specially-designed meditation benches, which we can use to meditate kneeling on a blanket, can be surprisingly comfortable. There are also round meditation cushions called zafus, which are much more solid than the average cushion lying around the house. Sitting on a zafu is probably the ideal meditation posture, but it may require the support of a teacher to get the posture correct at first.

Even though the posture is very still, we don’t want to become rigid and stiff. I find it helpful to think of myself as a tree which is firmly rooted in the ground, but which sways with the slightest motion when it’s windy. This helps to keep a sense of ease about the posture, which is the key to being able to sit in meditation for extended periods.

When we meditate regularly, this sense of ease and centeredness starts to gradually infuse the rest of our lives. Over time, we bring some of the strength and dignity of the meditation posture into our daily interactions, and we may find that life flows with less resistance because of this.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, experiment with the upright posture, whether you’re sitting, standing or walking. Where is the balance for you between being disengaged, and trying too hard? What does it feel like, when your posture allows you to be both alert and at ease at the same time?

Anja Tanhane

 

Sitting meditation – Part 1

‘You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day, unless you are too busy – then you should sit for an hour.’

Zen saying

There are many ways to cultivate mindfulness in our lives – practising yoga or Tai Chi perhaps, or doing some minutes of mindful walking. We can lie down and do the guided body scan, or tune into our breath as we wait in the supermarket queue. Perhaps on the walk back from the station we stop for a moment to admire some apple blossoms, or we choose to eat a meal in silence, really taking the time to taste the food and appreciate it.

All these are wonderful practices which greatly enrich our lives, but the heart of mindfulness for me has always been the sitting meditation. There is something about the sitting posture – centred, strong, grounded and upright – which seems to signal to our mind that this is a time to simply be present. We are not leaning into anything, wanting more; nor are we backing away, trying to avoid what’s there. Our mind may be impatient but our body is still, having a rest from our eternal fidgeting and distraction. An image which is sometimes used is that of a glass of muddy water which is constantly being shaken, so the water stays murky. If you place the glass down for half an hour, however, the mud sinks to the bottom, and we are left with clear water.

In a similar way, the sitting posture encourages clarity of mind. We become like a mountain, which sits solid and strong amidst the changing weather conditions around it. Thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky. Emotions can be like fierce burning sun or a gentle summer day or a wild blizzard – they too will eventually pass and make way for different weather patterns. Over time, we realise we don’t always have to react to every external stimulus, or to our thoughts or emotions. When we sit, there is nowhere to go, no-one to be. We are simply present with the miracle of each precious moment.

Weekly practice idea:

Take five minutes to sit quietly somewhere, noticing perhaps how pleasant it can be to take time out from the ‘doing’ mode we so often get caught up in. Allow yourself to feel grounded and steady among all the changing conditions of your life.

Anja Tanhane

 

Mindful communication

One of the most challenging circumstances for practising mindfulness, at least for me, is in the midst of a difficult conversation. Sometimes the other person can seem like a wily tennis opponent who is constantly hitting back your ball with plenty of spin and unexpected angles, leaving you standing in the middle of the court as the ball shoots past, with your mouth open and thinking, ‘what on earth was that?’ Apart from conventional small talk about the weather, most conversations are by their nature unpredictable, and if we’re feeling under attack, we may struggle to come up with a coherent response. Afterwards, we can think of all kinds of witty and clever repartees, but in the heat of the moment, it’s often not easy to reason clearly, let alone articulate our feelings in a skilful manner.

We can then slip all too easily into rigid communication patterns, based on what we’ve learnt in our past, both within our families and also the cultural context we grew up in. Some people are very skilled at assertive communication, where they are able to calmly express their point of view without attacking or ignoring the other person. For many of us, however, the communication patterns we learnt either involved withdrawal or aggression – or even a combination of the two in passive/aggressive behaviours. In the midst of a stressful encounter, these are the patterns we tend to revert to, despite our best intentions to try something different next time we find ourselves in this kind of situation. Decades of social conditioning and learnt behaviours are not so easy to undo.

The main way in which mindfulness can help us during a stressful encounter is by tuning into our body sensations as we are talking. This may seem counter-intuitive – who’s got time to worry about what might be happening in our bodies when we’re busy trying to think of a clever response and at the same time pay close attention to the other person, not just to their words but their body language and other non-verbal signals. And in any case, what have our bodies got to do with this conversation?

In fact, just as the other person’s body language gives you many valuable clues about what’s really going on, so does your body hold invaluable information, especially in the visceral region in the abdominal area. The well-known ‘gut instinct’ is a reality, based on our nervous system which sends particularly important information from this region to our brain. Often, if we’re feeling agitated, this information ends up in the more primitive parts of the brain, where it just makes us feel vaguely uneasy. However, by using mindfulness, we can bring the information to the front of the brain, the central pre-frontal cortex, where we are able to use it in a much more conscious and sophisticated manner. Ironically, by tuning into our own physical body sensations, we get a clearer idea of what is going on with the other person as well.

This helps us to also see their point of view, and the conversation becomes much richer, less confrontational. It may not instantly solve the difficulties, and we may never feel at our most effective when talking to this person. But anything which can take the heat out off a challenging situation, and help us be more present and grounded during the encounter, is likely to be helpful. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, sometimes the best we can hope for is not to escalate the situation.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you’re talking to someone who is mildly irritating, try tuning into your body sensations during the conversation. Notice if this makes any difference to your experience of the encounter.

Anja Tanhane

 

Mystery

‘Our practice is not to clear up the mystery, but to make the mystery clear.’

Robert Aitken, Zen teacher

 

Mystery can be expansive and deeply meaningful – gazing up at the night sky for example, and wondering how such a vast universe can exist, where our planet is the only one we’ve found so far which supports life. Or thinking about the millions of processes which are involved in keeping our bodies alive, this complex system which rarely breaks down. We can study our bodies through science in the minutest details, but still it is difficult to understand how it all holds together. How, for example, do all our cells and hormones and neurotransmitters and antibodies and neurons know what to do, and when? So much needs to happen just for us to take the next breath, let alone find and eat and digest food and so on, and yet the system is able to work seamlessly for decade after decade, keeping us alive if not always in perfect health.

And then of course there is our mind, this extraordinary creation which can be mysterious to us much of the time. When we meditate and become more familiar with the workings of our mind, it can be astonishing to discover where this mind likes to roam. A school excursion in Grade 2, something we read in the paper five weeks ago, still worrying about that discussion with a colleague, and now suddenly here we are in fantasy land, some rich drama is unfolding, we are caught up in that but then before we know it a brilliant solution to a problem which has been nagging us pops into our heads seemingly out of nowhere and we suddenly know how to proceed with a project – and all this within the space of a few minutes. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Yet mystery can also be unsettling, or even distressing – the more we delve into how mysterious life is, the more random it can all seem. If your great-great-grandfather hadn’t had an argument with his sweetheart and gone to the village festival where another girl smiled at him, and after years of ups and downs they did end up getting married, and he was often away and four of their children died in infancy but two survived and one of them fought in a war where he met a girl and after the war he found her and they moved to a nearby town where their seventh child, which almost didn’t survive the birth, became your grandmother… So much had to happen for us to be born. And at any point, stretching back hundreds of thousands of years, something different could have occurred which meant that you, or I, never got to exist at all.

We can spend our lives trying to clear up one mystery after the other, or we can, as Zen teacher Robert Aitken suggests, become more clear about the mystery of life. Yes, it can seem random, but at the same time, here we are. Just the fact we exist is wonderful – sometimes we can sit in meditation and just appreciate this simple truth.

Weekly practice idea:

Take a moment to look around you and notice what’s there, and allow yourself to be filled with a sense of mystery. What does it feel like, to be more clear about the mystery?

Anja Tanhane

 

Self knowledge

‘He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.’

― Lao Tzu

If knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon famously said, then self-knowledge can be seen as self-empowerment. We think this should be easy – after all, who better to know us than us ourselves? Yet, among the rush and stress of daily life, it can be surprisingly difficult to have a sense of what’s really going on inside us. In the midst of countless stimuli coming at us from outside, our internal signals can often remain unnoticed – that is, until they become so strong they can no longer be ignored. A major health crisis, the breakdown of a relationship, finding ourselves on the wrong side of the power dynamics at work – these common scenarios were often preceded by months if not years of subtle signals which we might have been ignoring at our cost.

It’s as if the temperature inside us is gradually increasing in intensity, bubbling away and gaining steam, until one day the lid is blown off and we literally ‘lose it’. This can be an outbreak of violence, such as a road rage incidence, or it can be more covert. Most of us would probably not attack someone physically, but we might become sarcastic, make some snide comment designed to hurt, or engage in passive-aggressive behaviour in the office or with our family. We might tell our boss a few home truths which would have been better addressed in a more professional manner, or we might say to our partner ‘not now’ when they want to raise a concern with us, stonewalling behind the fact it’s Friday night, or Sunday morning, or just never the right time to talk. Regardless of how it is expressed in our lives, this subterranean simmering tension, if not addressed, is unlikely to bring out the best in us.

By mindfully attuning to the early, very subtle signals, we can deal with our issues at a much earlier stage, before they get out of hand. We might notice a subtle tightening in the pit of our stomach every time we walk into the office, and ask ourselves – ‘what is going on here?’ We might feel nervous when confronting a relative, but be aware that this is a conversation which must be had, even if it is difficult for us. We might also notice subtle signs that some of our behaviour is no longer aligning with our values. Perhaps we ‘forgot’ to invite a less popular colleague to drinks after work, and notice sensations of discomfort in our bodies when we realise he or she is really feeling quite hurt.

By tuning in regularly to our bodily sensations, thought patterns and emotions, we are acting from a place of greater clarity and understanding. We do become more ‘enlightened’, as Lao Tzu said, in that we are shining an illuminating light on aspects of our lives we may have preferred to ignore.

Weekly practice idea:

Stop from time to time, and notice any bodily sensations, emotions, or thought patters. They may be subtle, or quite intense. What are these signals trying to tell you – and are you willing to take their message on board?

Anja Tanhane