The Mindfulness of Dog

Dante_Shrine_small
Dante in front of the shrine

Four of us from the New York sangha spent this past weekend upstate, in rural (and currently rather snowy) Columbia County. By four of us, I mean four of us human beings. There were also three dogs among us: little Mona, medium-sized Dante, and bigger Inu. The ride up was surprisingly tranquil, despite all seven mammals being carefully wedged into a not-so-spacious hybrid car. The dogs seemed to get on famously, having decided to overlook whatever nuttiness it was on the part of their human companions that had brought everyone together in such a small space for a two-hour-plus drive.

We decided on the drive up that we’d meditate together in the mornings. We were all going to do so anyway, so it made sense to make an impromptu shrine area somewhere in the house and sit together.

An aside. The small dog, Mona, is mine. She’s a pug, and she’s over fourteen years old. If you know pugs, you know that they make a not-insubstantial amount of snorting noises. The older Mona has gotten, the more impressive her wet, smacking, slurping, snorting repertoire has become. I’ve meditated with her at my side many times. I certainly don’t set it up that way, but very often I sit to meditate, and at some point she gets bored and comes looking for me. Clip-clip-clip down the hallway I hear her nails, and then comes the symphony of mouth and nose noises, with an occasional spray on my arm. Without fail, she decides that my sit is over before the timer has, so she starts to mewl, or paw my arm. Not paying attention to Mona is simply not an option.

I call her the Sixth Hindrance.

So you can imagine that I was a bit apprehensive about exposing my friends to all of this while they meditated. She didn’t disappoint, but she was hardly alone. From all three dogs there were a lot of licking sounds, licking of paws, of undercarriages, of the floor, of our arms… There was a lot of restless movement, at first at least. There was slapping of tails against us as the dogs weaved in and out of the circle we formed. There was nuzzling. There was slurping of water in the catch-basins at the bottom of the planters. There was sniffing of, well, pretty much everything around us. And there was the occasional period of heavy barking and mad-dashing around the house every time the radiator made an odd noise or one of them saw a squirrel or deer through the window.

But here’s the strange thing. Particularly on Sunday, our second morning, we agreed that we’d had a really good sit. We were doing the Mindfulness of Breathing, and typically it’s quite a challenge to keep my mind focused on the breath for very long. But not so on Sunday. I had what seemed like long stretches of strong focus and concentration, with very little distraction or wandering. And I wasn’t alone in experiencing that, despite the bouts of doggy bedlam going on around us.

I wonder if it was the degree to which one distraction completely overwhelmed every other potential distraction. The dog noises were so front-and-center that all of the other needling distractions that I usually face didn’t stand a chance of gaining prominence. And at the same time, I was completely relaxed about the dog noises. If it had just been Mona I probably would have been mortified. But it was Mona, Dante, and Inu, all dogs being dogs and doing what dogs do. We also all took a rather light-hearted approach to the whole situation. There was just no way to take the tableau seriously. There we were, sitting in a circle around an improvised shrine, chanting the Refuges and Precepts in Pali as the dogs wandered in and out, wagging their tails, nuzzling us, wondering what on earth it was we were doing.

I don’t think I’ll be adding the Mindfulness of Dog to my regular meditation routine. But as they often are, these dogs were good teachers. They seemed to say: Relax, and enjoy the situation. There’s nothing you can do to change our nature, so just be with it and see what happens.

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My Mind on a Month of Meditation

man_meditating-mod-modToday is the 37th day of 2015, which means that I’ve meditated every day for 37 days straight. Yes, I admit that it was a New Year’s Resolution. I’d gotten sloppy and lax in my meditation practice, among other things, during the holidays. The changing of the year seemed like a good time to get back in the habit, so I made a commitment to sit every day.

37 days is hardly a record for anyone, not even for me, and my meditation practice is modest and middle of the road at best. But these 37 days follow a long stretch of sloppy, on-and-off, half-hearted meditating, so it’s an interesting time to do a contrast between now and December to see what meditation has brought me. Of course this is my experience, and yours or anyone else’s would probably be a bit different. For what it’s worth, here’s one person’s experience after a modest, attainable, far-from-monklike 37 days of meditation.

I’m happier. Happiness is not the goal of meditation, at least as I understand it. But happiness, or perhaps more accurately contentedness, seems to be a by-product. I don’t fully understand it, but I think it may have something to do with expectations. I find that when I meditate regularly, my expectations are not as sharp or demanding. I don’t mean that my expectations are lowered, they’re just tamed. With tamed expectations, there are fewer barriers between me and contentedness and even happiness.

I pay closer attention. You know that thing that we all do when a spouse, partner, friend or colleague is talking to us, and our minds wander? Our eyes glaze a bit, and then suddenly we jump back to ourselves, completely giving away that fact that we haven’t really been paying attention. I find that I do that a lot less. Meditation is training to stay in the moment, to not let our minds wander. That has a lot of great benefits for us individually – for example not letting our heads run away with stories and fantasies that bring us strong emotions tied to absolutely nothing but a mental fabrication. But it’s also nice on the people we share our lives with. We get to experience them, and all the small moments that make up our day, more fully, with less judgment or prejudice or baggage.

I’m not as reactive. This is related to paying closer attention. If your head is fully in a moment, and your mind is kept from taking some kernel of a thought and running away with it to tell you all sorts of crazy stories, you simply experience more and react less. For example, I found myself in exactly the same morning rush hour traffic yesterday as I had been in about three months ago. (This is rare; I live in Manhattan and hardly ever drive, but had to go to the same place at the same time on these two separate occasions.) Back in November, I first got annoyed, and then I slowly began to panic as my mind told me stories about being late to this appointment and convinced me of all of the horrible tragedies that would follow. Yesterday, there was no panic. Maybe a flurry of anxiety, which I took note of, but which never took hold of me. Instead of irrational panic, I saw the obvious: I had a cell phone and could call if I was running late. There wasn’t even any guarantee that I would be late. Either way, there was not much I could do about the traffic then, other than make a note that I’d have to leave a bit earlier the next time.

I sleep better. This is a huge deal for me. I’ve struggled with insomnia for years, and have had to resort to all sorts of pharmaceutical help. Again, it’s a head game that I play with myself. Once I turn off the light and realize that I’m not feeling sleepy and drifting off right away, I start to panic, and then I start to tell myself feverish stories of never being able to sleep again. You can imagine where that goes. Being in the moment – simply feeling my breath, scanning my body for where there is tension or aches, noting but not following any negative emotions – short-circuits that whole process. If you’re only in the present, those feverish stories have nowhere to live. Surprise, sleeps comes for me, not immediately, but eventually.

I have more aha moments. With a somewhat stiller mind, I’ve found that I’m struck by seemingly random moments of clarity, even minor insights. I’m not talking at all about enlightenment-level insight, but still insight. I was on the subway the other day and suddenly I saw all of the people around me not as strangers of different genders, ages, races, and experiences, but as other types of me, and myself as another type of them. I looked at different people and was amazed by the realization that inside those heads – even through the closed, emotionless subway-face – I could see an interior world that would consist of minor variations on all of the themes that make up me: love, hope, fear, anger, grudges, friends, family, favorite foods, least favorite songs… Intellectually, this is nothing to write home about. But I knew it on an emotional level that really made me feel as one, for a fleeting moment, with everyone on the 3 Train.

It’s easier for me to meditate. Meditation has a momentum of its own. It can feel like a chore at times, but once there’s a critical mass of meditation, it becomes easier, more natural, and even more automatic to sit. And that just reinforces all of the good stuff.

 

 

 

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Practice To Go

 

 

travel shrineI recently got back from a two-week vacation, and I had really been determined to find time to meditate every day. The challenges were: quite a long (16 hours) flight in either direction, jet lag, staying in several different locations throughout the country I was visiting with different types of accommodations at each stop, traveling not just with my partner but also with another couple, and a good amount of travel within the country by plane and by car.

I’d guessed some of the challenges I’d face before I left, but I also found that I had to improvise as I went, which was a nice learning experience. I’m happy to report that I did manage to meditate every day, and I think these are the points that made this possible:

  • Be flexible with time. Grab a chunk of it whenever you can, and don’t be too fussy about whether it’s the same time every day, unless you’re really certain your schedule will allow you to live up to that. Since I was traveling with my partner, we figured out that the best time was when he was in the shower, so I had a bit of privacy in the main room. But some days I had to make time on planes, in cars, or in the evenings.
  • Be flexible about space and posture. Don’t be very demanding of the environment that you’ll meditate in. You may find yourself propping up pillows or blankets to simulate a meditation cushion, or simply sitting on the floor or against a bed or wall. Airplane seats are not the best place to do anything, let alone meditate, but even they can work.
  • Be forgiving of noise. You may be in a quiet hotel room, or you may be in a car or on a flight with that drone of machinery and conversation all around you. Noise-canceling headphones are helpful, and a white noise app as well, but you’re probably going to have to just roll with the noise at some point.
  • Get support from your travel companions. I found it helpful that my partner and friends knew that I wanted to go off and meditate at some point every day. They were very generous and understanding, and it helped me keep up my practice.
  • Be creative with your meditation. I was able to do my regular Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana, but sometimes I found that a body scan was more suited to either the position I was in (packed into an airplane seat) or the noise level.
  • Be forgiving of duration. Don’t demand 30 or 40 minute meditations if that’s not realistic, or if it’s unfair to your partner/spouse/friends/travel companions, who may be tip-toeing around you, sealed off from their hotel room, or agreeing not to play the radio while you get in a quick Metta in the backseat of the van!
  • Accept that your food options may not always be terribly interesting. If vegetarianism is part of your practice, as it is mine, you may need to settle for rice, bread, beans, salads, and an array of grilled vegetables that are prepared by people who don’t really know how to prepare food for vegetarians, and may even look on you with a kind of perplexed pity when you explain that you don’t eat meat or fish. I found it helpful to have soy protein bars, almonds, and peanuts in my bag, especially when I was outside of the bigger cities of the meat-loving country that I visited. If you do eggs and cheese you’ll have an easier time, but it is possible to keep vegan if you’re well prepared, including psychologically!

If you really like to have a focal point for meditation, there are travel shrines available. I have one very similar to this, which has a small Buddha figurine, a candle, and incense burner and some incense. Of course not all hotels – not to mention airplanes – will appreciate your burning candles or incense. And of course you don’t need a travel shrine, or even a small Buddha figurine, or really anything at all. Just a little time, a little space, and you’ll be able to take your practice with you anywhere you go.

Chris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Meditation Timers: Modern Gadgets Meet Mindfulness

At our Tuesday Sangha Nights we usually do things in a pretty traditional way. We salute the shrine, we chant the Refuges and Precepts, both in Pāli and in English, and then we sit to meditate. There’s a meditation leader, usually an order member or someone who’s asked for ordination, and he or she marks the beginning of the meditation and the start of each stage with a tingsha meditation bell, pictured here. The ambience is peaceful, with candles and incense, and a groupdragon tingsha of sangha members sitting on cushions in various postures, or on chairs, and soon enough the noise of the city fades away as we get into our meditations.

At home, a lot of us use more modern tools. There are several different timed meditations on the Triratna-NYC site, and you can simply play them from your computer to do a 20, 30, 40, or 60 minute Metta Bhavana or Mindfulness of Breathing.

And as with most things in life these days, there’s an app for that. My informal survey of our sangha has the Insight Timer as the clear favorite, but there are plenty of others. I’m in the Insight Timer camp myself, and I have several pre-programmed meditations of different lengths that I use. If you like a social media angle, you can make a profile of yourself, have ‘friends,’ join groups, send messages… all of that stuff. Personally I don’t use those features, but I can see the appeal if you want to have a kind of virtual sangha and see who, across the planet, you’ve just been meditating with.

insight timer

You can also keep a journal, adding notes on each time you sit – which meditation you did, what hindrances may have arisen, and so on. If you’re a lover of stats, you can see how your meditation practice has been going by the numbers – total number of days meditating, consecutive days, amount of time spent, etc. Of course you can ignore all of that, too, and just meditate.

The great thing about these timers is that you simply touch “start,” and then you don’t have to worry about keeping an eye on a clock or watch. Not that a clock or watch isn’t a perfectly suitable alternative if you prefer not to use a smart phone.

There are also links to several other meditation tools, including special clocks and timers of the physical, non-app variety, as well as CDs and MP3s. If you have other favorites that are not included, leave a comment and let us know.

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Put Them on the Moon

Hatred_Greed_Ignorance

Photo © Falk Kienas/iStockphoto

In case you’re new to meditation and have never heard of the metta bhavana, it’s a very old and basic meditation meant to cultivate feelings of metta, usually translated as loving-kindness. It’s not romantic love, or attached love, or even familial love, but rather the kind of love, compassion, kindness, courtesy, empathy, and all of those other good things that, if universally applied, would make the world a much nicer place.

You can get far better instruction on the metta bhavana than these few words here, but in a very quick nutshell, it’s divided into five stages. In each stage, your focus is a different person (people in the last stage), but the aim is the same. You actively seek to evoke and feel metta for the person (or people) you’re focusing on, maybe by conjuring up an image of the person in a tranquil and safe setting, maybe by saying his/her name, maybe by reciting – with heart! – words like “May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you…” You get the picture.

The stages of the metta bhavana have as their focal points or objects of concentration:

  • Stage 1: Yourself
  • Stage 2: A good friend, someone you love dearly but not in a sexual way, ideally with as little baggage and as few attached strings as possible
  • Stage 3: A neutral person, someone who you see regularly and maybe know by name, but don’t have strong feelings for one way or the other
  • Stage 4: An enemy, someone you know and dislike, have a negative history with, or someone who you’re bothered by or are having difficulties with
  • Stage 5: Everyone from stages 1 through 4, then gradually a wider circle that expands to include all living beings.

When I first learned the metta bhavana, I remember thinking, “I don’t have any real enemies!” And it was probably even true at that time. I had people who annoyed me, just as I annoyed them, I’m sure, but that didn’t seem like much of a challenge. How hard is it to evoke feelings of compassion and kindness for someone who only annoys you?

As it so happens, I would soon enough be supplied with someone who genuinely rises to the level of enemy for me. A person who, on some days at least, I can’t think of without feeling a whole host of bitter and negative emotions. I don’t wish harm on this person, but I certainly have a hard time wringing any sort of compassion and kindness out of the tangle of emotions I do feel. Usually, I simply don’t think of this person, but every so often, when I’m feeling strong, I have my enemy for Stage 4 of the metta bhavana.

This can be tricky. On the one hand, it seems to be precisely the kind of challenge the metta bhavana offers us. If we can bring ourselves to feel compassion and kindness when it’s hard to do so, to say “we’re all human beings in the same boat, so I feel for you and your suffering because it’s mine, too,” we’d all be better people for everyone, ourselves included. On the other hand, most of us aren’t immune to flashes of strong emotion, and a perfectly well-intentioned metta bhavana can wind up creating hatred and ill will, and that’s not something we want to let ourselves steep in.

My solution is usually to simply pick an “easy” enemy. Someone who’s bothering me for some silly reason. But every once in a while I feel that my practice deepens if I come back to the Enemy, and actively look within myself to find and nurture the part of me that recognizes common suffering, that’s able to set aside a very real and bitter history and simply say, “despite it all, we have dukkha in common,” and that’s enough to create even a small spark of compassion and loving-kindness.

It helps that one of my teachers, a Triratna Order Member, had a very simple trick for me to use. I’d gone to him with the concern that my practice was getting clouded by feelings of hatred and ill will, and that I wasn’t able to handle a real enemy in the metta bhavana. He said that I didn’t always have to force myself to confront such a difficult person, that sometimes the “easy enemy” is practice enough. As for the Enemy with a capital E, he said, “put them on the moon!” It took me a moment, but I think I understood what he meant. Make distance, give yourself space. Encourage so wide a perspective that you don’t see the details of betrayal and anger and all the rest, just the outline of a person, far away, who’s trying to get through life the same as you are. Slowly, you can bring them back toward the Earth, and slowly the negative emotions will be replaced by genuine compassion and loving-kindness, with time and practice.

And if you have set-backs, hey, there’s always Pluto.

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That Eureka Posture

I think it’s safe to say that right after I began meditating, the object of my concentration was neither the breath nor the cultivation of metta, but rather the pins and needles in my feet, the cramps in my legs, the ropey knot in my back, and the soreness in my buttocks. I tried many different postures – sitting on the mat, sitting further forward on the mat so that my knees touched the ground, sitting in a chair, straddling the cushion… they all seemed great at first, but within five minutes or so, the pins and needles, cramps, knots, and soreness began, then slowly got so bad that I was silently begging for the final bells.

Many of the books I was reading at the time had sections or entire chapters devoted to posture. At first I scanned them only because posture just didn’t seem important. I wanted to get on to the “real” stuff of meditation, and I couldn’t imagine that to be related to how one places one’s butt on a cushion. But soon enough I saw that my failure to take meditation posture seriously was going to be a huge hindrance to my practice. I went back to those books and read those sections carefully, but I still couldn’t quite understand what, exactly, I was doing wrong.

It wasn’t until my first retreat that I asked more experienced meditators for advice. We eventually decided that straddling was the best position for me, and then several of my sangha mates when to work erecting some strange contraption involving a folded yoga mat, two meditation cushions, a rolled up towel, some blankets, and some sort of foam block. The keys ingredients of my position on the contraption were:

  • knees on mat, foam, or something soft
  • proper height of cushions so that I was neither slumping nor teetering, so that…
  • …my sitz bone acted like a fulcrum, balancing the weight of my body above it
  • …and my ankles were lifted a bit off the ground so that my feet weren’t bent under too much weight

I was a bit skeptical, but we sat for an hour-long meditation, and at the end, I was thrilled to report that I felt no cramps, anywhere. When I got home from retreat I quickly reconstructed my meditation contraption.

cushions_mat_ankle restkneeling_medititation_posture

If you’re new to meditating, do not underestimate the importance of posture. And do not underestimate the advice of experienced meditators who can help you work your way through a few different options. Straddling the cushion is just one solution, and it worked for me, but it may not be the best solution for you. In our sangha we have people who straddle the cushion, people who sit cross-legged on it, and people who sit upright in chairs, with all sorts of minor variations. You’ll know when you’ve found your eureka posture, and then you can get back to the actual practice of meditation.

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Change Your Mind by Paramananda

Change Your MindOne of the first books I read after coming to Triratna-NYC was Change Your Mind: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Meditation, by Paramananda. It was a wonderful resource as I started to practice meditation, with a simple and friendly tone, and clear instructions and advice on everything from cushions and posture to tips on how to bring the benefits of a Buddhist practice into your daily life. I’ve since recommended Change Your Mind to family and friends as an excellent introduction, or as an approachable tool to get back in the habit of regular practice.

Change Your Mind starts with the basics, answering the question What is meditation? and then moves to the essentials in an inviting and personal way. The author gives a thorough explanation of the importance of posture and the different postures a meditator may use. This was particularly helpful to me, since invariably my back knotted up, or my foot fell asleep, or my leg began to ache about five minutes into any meditation I started.

The first meditation covered is a simple body meditation, which helps new meditators become acquainted with their own physical presence as they sit. It’s a very accessible approach that helps beginners learn to focus on the now. Then the author covers the two traditional meditations we do at Triratna, the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana, or the cultivation of Loving-Kindness, with clear explanations as well as led practices. The author also discusses the role of intention and balanced effort in meditation, and the link between mental, emotional, and physical states and meditation, and how all of that is connected to how we (can) lead our lives.

While Change Your Mind does not focus on Buddhist philosophy, even basic points such as the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, there is an introduction to the brahmavihāras, or the Four Immeasurables, the compassionate virtues that arise from practice of the Metta Bhavana. This is written in the same friendly, down-to-earth style as the rest of the book, inviting practitioners to experience for themselves the link between meditation and living in a healthier, more compassionate way.

Finally, anyone who’s meditated is doubtlessly familiar with the Five Hindrances, which are also covered, along with time-tested methods for dealing with them and always coming home to the object of concentration. These tools are key to sustaining a practice, especially when you’ve reached a plateau, which most people experience.

All in all, Change Your Mind is a wonderful book to read if you’re a beginner, or if you’ve been meditating for a while but want to go back to the basics for a fresh, friendly, creative, and inspirational point of view. It is neither dry and mechanical nor full of Pali and Sanskrit terms for unfamiliar Buddhist philosophical concepts. It goes right for the middle path, and makes it easy for the reader to follow along.

-Chris

 

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Welcome to Our Blog

meditation-dayWe’ve been talking about a blog for a while now, and as Buddhists trying to live by the old saying “there’s no time like the present,” we figured we’d better get to it. So, welcome to our first blog post.

First a little bit about us. Triratna NYC is part of the worldwide Triratna Buddhist movement. We’re a growing sangha (a community of Buddhist practitioners) in New York City, with members from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, New Jersey, and all around the NY metropolitan area. We’re a pretty diverse bunch, something we like about ourselves. We’re women and men, old and young, straight and gay, black and white and brown and everything in between. Some of us are professionals, some are artists, some are students, some are retired. Some of us have been Buddhists for decades, and some have just found the dharma. We all support and learn from one another.

We meet for sangha nights on Tuesdays in Manhattan, but we also have practice days, retreats, sangha dinners, outings, study groups, and all sorts of other things. Look for events on our site, but if anything particularly interesting is coming up, we’ll let you know here.

With this blog we hope to share a bit about ourselves and our sangha – our personalities, our interests, our individual experiences with the dharma. We also want to share our experiences with a Buddhist lifestyle, so you’ll find tips on meditation and posture, book recommendations, Buddhist resources on and offline, vegetarian restaurant reviews and recipes, film recommendations, information on museum exhibits… anything that one of us finds interesting from our individual Buddhist perspective.

So, again, welcome, and we hope to see you online or in person if you’re in the area.

-Chris

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