Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Happy New Year!


I'm back from the monastery, where I wrote a few blog posts that I'll be posting in a series throughout January.  

It felt a bit strange to spend most of December in a Buddhist monastery and then go through ConsumerFest (formally known as the birth of Jesus). All the advertisements and presents seemed a little bit surreal - I just couldn't get into the spirit of it.  Although, I did enjoy giving my three year old nephew his present - a teeny red recliner seat, so cute. (OK...I can do ConsumerFest as good as the next person!) 

I got a gastro virus three days after Christmas, which meant that I spent a whole night throwing up - but lost all those extra Christmas kilos.  I think whoever invented the saying 'every cloud has a silver lining' had been in exactly this situation. 

Before I sign off for 2009, here's a poem by the late Indian yoga master Swami Kripalu. I thought this was a lovely poem for the beginning of a new year. 

My beloved child, break your heart no longer.
Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.
You stop feeding on the love, which is the wellspring of your vitality.
The time has come. Your time. To live. To celebrate,
and to see the goodness that you are…
Do not fight the dark. Just turn on the light.
Let go, and breathe into the goodness that you are.

Happy New Year!

Friday, November 27, 2009

A month at the monastery

I'm off for a month's retreat at the Santi Forest Monastery - a Buddhist monastery located in the Southern Highlands of NSW (a few hours from Sydney). Santi doesn't run formal, structured, retreats but is a 'living monastery' consisting of a community of around 20 monks, nuns and laypeople.  

It's set in a large area of bushland; with alpine gums trees, craggy rock formations, caves, and wildlife.  The monastery borders the Morton National Park, a huge park which stretches from the hills to the sea, 80 kms away. It's a beautiful, peaceful place to have a meditation retreat.


Here's a few photos I took last year, the first time I went to Santi.  This photo is of a little meditation platform, wedged into a cliff face...



And here's the view you get as you sit on the platform...gorgeous huh? I can't say I spent much time sitting there with my eyes closed - I just kept my eyes open,  looking at the view and listening to the sounds of the wind, the birds, and the nearby waterfall.




There won't be any posts for December, because I will be sans internet (eek!).  But, I'm hoping to do some writing whilst I'm at Santi, so I might do a few posts and put them on the blog when I get back. 





Monday, November 23, 2009

Hope Begins in the Dark



Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don't give up. 

I read this quote yesterday and smiled grimly to myself, because it pretty much pins down how I'm feeling at the moment. If I had to draw a picture of how I feel there'd be a cartoon character hanging by one fingernail to the side of a cliff while a bunch of coyotes waited at the bottom (with a few buzzards circling in the sky too - just for good measure).

OK, a bit dramatic - and I'm not so sure buzzards can even fly - but I'm sure you get my drift.  I'm just hanging in there; stubbornly hoping, and not giving up.

This meditation caper aint easy!  True, there are occasional moments of insight and peace, but I'm spending an awful lot of time just feeling pain, feeling distress, feeling despair, feeling hopelesness. Just to make life a little bit harder for myself I'm also feeling that if I was a better meditator, if I just 'got this', then I wouldn't be feeling all this...this...CRAP!

So, it's good to come across quotes like the one above.  I just hope my stubborness will see me through. 'One more breath, just one more breath...'
  
An hour later... 

Well! Waddaya know?!  Buzzards can fly  - and here's one doing it...



Thursday, November 19, 2009

Staying tactics

It struck me last week that most of my meditation practice is about learning ways to stay with whatever physical sensation, thought, or emotion is presenting itself in the moment. I don't do a lot of meditation where I concentrate on a single sensation, such as my breath.  Most of what I'm doing is just showing up for the moment - being present. I think, in Buddhism, this would be called more a mindfulness meditation practice than a concentration practice.
 
Over the last few years I've developed some different techniques that help me to stay with what's happening.  The interesting thing about these techniques - which could involve words or images - is that they change all the time. Maybe for a week or so, I repeat one phrase - 'yes, this is really happening' - to help me stay with difficult thoughts or feelings. Then I listen to a meditation podcast and hear another phrase which resonates with me and I find myself saying - 'this feeling is difficult, but somewhere it has meaning for my life.'
 
At first, when I noticed that I was changing my little 'staying tactics' every few weeks I was a bit concerned.  'Don't I have to have steadiness in my practice?' I thought. 'Shouldn't I just be saying the one thing, and not jumping around all over the place?'  I thought this was yet another example of my impatient, easily bored mind.
 
Then I saw the bigger picture - that my little techniques might change, but what I was using them for wasn't changing. I was using them to deepen my ability to stay, and that ability was slowly becoming steadier, and deeper, and richer.  I could see that sometimes I needed the simplicity of just one word to try to stay with a feeling - 'yes, yes' - and sometimes I needed some support from outside myself -  perhaps the image of a kind person placing their hand on my arm and saying 'yes, this is difficult...just try to stay.'
 
It was good to see that there was some pattern, and some progression, in my practice. It was also comforting to just start trusting my intuition about what might help me stay present at a particular time - and to recognise that I do have some internal wisdom that helps guide me in this practice (however much I might second-guess that wisdom at times!)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Stealth Metta

Metta Bhavana is a type of Buddhist meditation that involves sending loving kindness to ourselves and all sentient beings.  In Pali (the language the Buddha spoke), metta means love, or lovingkindness, and bhavana is the word for cultivation - so this is a meditation on cultivating loving kindness.

I really like the use of the word 'cultivation.'  Its use shows that the Buddha came from an agrarian culture, where people related easily to language linked to their livelihoods. I think it's also a very gentle way to describe a meditation practice; we just plant the seeds, till the soil, water the plants, and protect them from harm, and one day we'll have some delicious food to eat!  It can feel awkward if we try to force feelings of lovingkindness, but this meditation encourages us to just take it slowly -  dropping a few small seeds of kindness and compassion into the soil at one time.

Metta Bhavana usually consists of sending loving kindness to yourself, then to a loved person, a neutral person, a person you have difficulties with, and finally, the whole world.  This is a link to a free audio podcast of a guided Loving Kindness meditation and here's a longer written description of the meditation.

There's also something called 'Stealth Metta' - which I heard Tara Brach talk about a few days ago in one of her podcasts.  This is where you use opportunities during the day to secretly send lovingkindness to people. You might spend two minutes while waiting at a traffic light to send lovingkindness to other drivers around you: 'May you be safe, may you be peaceful.' Or waiting in a doctor's surgery you could send the thought, 'May we be well, may we be happy,' to everyone in the waiting room.  If you're lying in bed listening to the radio you could send out feelings of lovingkindness to every talkback caller.

Like all meditation practice, a routine can be helpful. I had a practice for a while that involved sending feelings of lovingkindness to anyone I handed money to.  So, whenever I was in a shop and paying for something, I'd think, 'May you be happy,' as I handed the money over.  It can also help to visualise that person being happy while you say the words.  That seems to help connect the words to the feeling you're trying to cultivate.

If you're doing this type of practice and find yourself thinking, 'Actually, I don't really care that much about you. Why do I care whether you're happy or not?' - don't worry!  Noticing who we care about, and who we don't care about, is all part of the practice.  Just let feelings of ambivalence, or even dislike, be there as you keep going  with the practice. If you judge yourself for not feeling enough lovingkindness, just try to notice those judgements, but don't buy into them - this is also just part of the meditation.  Slowly, your metta muscle will build up.

If you have any other 'stealth metta' ideas, please let me know - I love to get your comments.




Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Simple, but not easy.


I've just been listening to an interview with Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn,who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Mass Medical School.  He's also the author of many books on mindfulness, including 'Wherever you go - there you are.'  Such a good book title, becuase it's true...dammit! 

I haven't read any of Kabat-Zinn's books yet, but, after this interview  I'll be tracking some down. He seems to be an excellent communicator, describing meditation as 'simple, but not easy,'  and saying the process of meditation is about 'bringing out own shadow back into the light.' 

Part of the interview was about some common misconceptions about meditation.   If I ever write a book about meditation it'll be called 'It's not about the breath'  - becuase I spent about 10 years fixated on the idea that clinging rigidly to my breath (and slaying my thoughts and feelings) was what meditation was all about.  Doh!  So, these misconceptions abound, and I don't think they're addressed often enough in meditation classes, or teachings. 

Here are Kabat-Zin's top three meditation misconceptions - 

1) Meditation is 'kind of like making your mind go blank,' so you'll be like a 'glowing, lightbulb of happiness,' with no worries or thoughts.  This is a misconception;  meditation is about really getting us in touch with all of life -  not being blank, or empty. 

2) The aim of meditation is to achieve a state of pure bliss. A lot of what we experience moment-to-moment isn't blissful.  We can aim to chase a certain state, like bliss, overlooking the fact that the bliss comes from  just being in contact with life as it is. State-chasing can result in a lot of frustration and confusion in meditation practice.

3) Meditation involves stopping.  Yes, formal meditation does involve stopping, but it's possible to meditate running, chopping vegetables, making love.  We don't have to stop our lives to meditate. We can meditate wherever we are, however we're feeling.


Interesting stuff.  I wish I'd listened to this interview when I began my meditation practice. But, hey, maybe learning the hard way is my karma.  (What the hell did I do in my last life?  I hope it was fun, that's all I can say.)

Here is a list of Kabat-Zinn's books -

  • Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness (Dell, 1990)
  • Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Hyperion, 1994)
  • Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting (Hyperion, 1997) 
  • Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness (Hyperion, 2005)
  • The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (with Williams, Teasdale, and Segal - Guildford, 2007)

Temple - Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Photoshop meditation analogy



 Over the last few days I've been fiddling around with Photoshop - trying to learn how to use the darned thing!  Determined to overcome this little Everest of computer software I started looking around for some on-line tutorials and, joy oh joy, finally worked out how to open a photo. My next task was looking at layers.  If you haven't used Photoshop, the layers are a little bit like working with transparencies. You can layer image upon image. Then, you lock all the layers together to form one picture.

Yesterday I did a little meditation session and realised how like 'layers' my mind is. I would have a thought, let's say - "I really haven't been feeling so well the last few days." And then, layer upon layer, other thoughts and emotions would start appearing -

"Actually, I haven't been so well all this year, is that right? Yes, I think that's right."
Anxiety.
"Maybe I'm slowly getting worse.  Not only will I never get well, I'm going to get worse!"
Despair.
"It's my fault, I've always push myself too much, my body is just wearing out."
Blame.
"But, heaps of other people have been as sick as me and got well."
Hope.
"But, really?  Could that happen to me?  I don't think so."
Hopelessness

And then, just like in photoshop, all these layers lock together. They become one picture, which then plays over and over in my mind. Maybe one of the tricks with meditation is to learn to see these layers, and then become adept at recognising, 'OK...I'm layering my thoughts and then creating a mental picture of what I think is happening. Hmmm...let's just watch that.'

In truth, I really don't know what is happening with my health, and that makes me anxious. Living in the unknown, with no definite picture, is very difficult. But, having the 'layers' image in my head has helped to give me a little bit more perspective on my thoughts and feelings. I'm trying not to dismiss or fight these layering thoughts, but  just let them exist without investing too much energy into them.  A tricky balance.

So!  Enough of meditation...here's something I've been mucking around with in photoshop. It's a photo of my sister that I've turned into black and white, and then into a stencil design. (She said it was very 'first year art school' which I'm taking as a yuuuuge compliment!)


Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sharon Salzberg - retreat podcasts


I've come across some podcasts of a day-long retreat with Sharon Salzberg.  

Sharon's a Buddhist meditation teacher and I really love to hear her talks becuase she sounds so down-to-earth.  I don't get the idea she's floating around on some spiritual cloud ten miles above the rest of us poor sods -  she just seems like regular folk.

Sharon has a particular interest in vipassana (insight) meditation, and Loving Kindness (metta) meditation, and leads retreats and workshops around the world. I was thrilled to see that the Insight Meditation Community of Washington's website has the audio of a day-long workshop that Sharon led in Febuary 2009. The workshop was titled "Working with Your Enemies: Finding Freedom from Hostility and Fear."

The audio includes Sharon leading a Loving Kindness meditation, a balance meditation, and doing question and answer sessions with participants. I've been listening to it over and over again over the last few days, and have really enjoyed it.  


 May you be happy :)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Introduction

Hi! Welcome to The Chronic Meditator.  Here are some links to different posts you might be interested in. 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

God Loves Everyone - song by Ron Sexsmith

Well, never thought I'd use the 'G' word on this blog, but this song is worth it.  Ron Sexsmith is a Canadian singer/songwriter with an enviable ability to write haunting melodies, and lyrics to match.

I just saw a live version of  'God Loves Everyone' on You Tube - and then downloaded the chords so I could bash away at it on the piano.  In a lesser song-writer this song would sound contrived, but in Ron's hands, it speaks to universal love and forgiveness. Beautiful!

If you're in need of a bit of kindness in your life - check this out.





God Loves Everyone was written in response to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student. In one interview Ron Sexmith said, "I just remember in the heat of the moment scribbling down all the lyrics and then not really knowing if I could sing it. I was a bit worried that some people might take it the wrong way or be offended. It's been interesting to see the response, it's really gotten every response imaginable - some people have been upset, some people have thanked me. I am glad I wrote it and I'm glad we put it on [the CD]"

Below are the song's lyrics, and click here for a PDF of the guitar/piano chords.
 
God loves everyone
Like a mother loves her son
No strings at all
Unconditional
Never one to judge
Would never hold a grudge
'Bout what's been done
God loves everyone

There are no gates in heaven
Everyone gets in
Queer or straight
Souls of every faith
Hell is in our minds
Hell is in this life
But when it's gone
God takes everyone

Its love is like a womb
It’s like the air from room to room
It surrounds us all
The living and the dead
May we never lose the thread
That bound us all

The killer in his cell
The atheist as well
The pure of heart
And the wild at heart
Are all worthy of its grace
It's written in the face
Of everyone
God loves everyone

There's no need to be saved
No need to be afraid
Cause when it’s done
God takes everyone

God loves everyone

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Emasculated by Buddhism - a response


This is a response to a  post from the The New Heretics blog.  The writer of the blog is a Buddhist in Bible College in the US and wrote a really thought-provoking and humourous piece called 'Emasculated By "Buddhism."'

Click on over to his piece to read the whole post (it's worth it!).  Here's part of it -
Tonight in my Sangha marked yet another in a now long-running series of dharma talks that are really just self-help books wrapped in a bit of meditation and the occasional quote from some Buddhist text. I am just sick and tired of it...I was one of two guys there, and the thing ended with about 20 middle-aged ladies crying on each other’s shoulders over how their dads were not there for them, someone was mean to them in high school, or over some marriage that fell apart. The whole thing ended in a sobbing, wet, group hug.
...
Seriously, I think there has to be more “Suck-it-up-ness” and “Deal-with-it-ness” in the practice.
...
I think this current movement of reducuing Buddhism to a non-religious self-help philosophy is sad, and that it has to go.
I read this post a few days ago and have spent a lot of time since thinking about the Heretic's points. (I'm going to ignore the bit about middle-aged ladies and focus on the essence of his piece...)

Has Buddhism in the West been reduced to little more than a self-help organisation?  Or, has Buddhism evolved to meet the needs of Western people?  Obviously, there's no clear answer to these questions, but I think it's part of a dialogue that Buddhists need to have if we are to keep this wonderful religion/psychology alive and relevent to our lives.

The New Heretics blog prompted me to re-listen to a Sounds True interview with Sharon Salzburg. Sharon is a meditation teacher who is well known for her emphasis on Loving Kindness (metta) meditation. 
 I had a chance to ask him [the Dalai Lama]  a question, so I said, "Oh your holiness, what do you think about self-hatred?" And he didn't know what I was talking about. And there was all this buzz in the room and it was really quite funny, and he said, "People like that, are they very violent?" and he said, "Is it some kind of mental disorder?" and he had no idea. And it was really quite fun, because the translators, who were westerners got very animated and were trying to explain to him how so many western people heard certain aspects of Buddhist teaching like right effort and strive on with diligence, and how those words often entered a tremendous pool of self-judgment and self-condemnation within us. It was quite instructive.

My journey with spirituality, meditation, and Buddhism is encapsulated within this quote - I was one of those people who saw everything through lense of self-judgement. I started off as a very hard-core meditator; when I was first introduced to LovingKindness meditation I thought, 'What a load of pansy nonsense this is! What use is all this lovey-dovey stuff?'  I was into Boot Camp Meditation - convinced that I had to meditate longer and better than anyone else in order to overcome my many, many (perceived) psychological problems.

I had a chronic illness, and through an unhelpful experience with a healer, I'd come to the firm opinion that I'd caused my own illness and there was something very wrong with me. I was convinced that if only I was a good enough spiritual person I could fix all my 'ishooos' and then get well. 

For a decade I was utterly lost in this delusion.  Beating myself up about being sick and weak and hopeless was the only way I knew how to relate to myself.  Occasionally I would see a friend, or counsellor, who would encourage me to 'go easy on myself.'  'Huh!' I would think, 'What good does that do?  Concentrating on my good qualities won't help... I have to concentrate on my weaknesses - and FIX THEM!' 

I remember going to see one psychologist who was a very warm, compassionate woman.  As I sat there listening to her talking gently to me I vividly remember thinking, 'I'm not paying you to be nice to me lady!  Being nice won't get me well.'


So, at this point, you're probably getting some sense of my inner life.  I knew that meditation was the path for me, but, I couldn't find a way into meditation, or any kind of spirituality, becuase I only knew of one way to react to myself - with blame and judgement. I was aware that this blame and judgement was there, but I had no tools to respond, or sit, with them. 

Last year I went to stay for a month at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney.  The Abbott running the monastary knew I wasn't well, but invited me to come anyway.  'Don't worry about participating in the work schedule, or coming to meetings...just do what you can.'  

When I arrived I got very sick and could hardly get out of bed - let alone help in the kitchen.  I spent the whole month at the monastery crying, and whenever I met with the Abbott I would burst into tears and say, 'I can't meditate.  What am I doing here?!' He would smile kindly and say, 'Don't worry.  Do what you can. Every monastery needs someone who stays in their hut all day and cries.'

Although I found the whole month extremely difficult I later realised what an extraordinary gift the Abbott had given me.  He had accepted me in his monastery exactly as I was.  He didn't demand intense meditation from me, he didn't ask that I work, and he didn't promise that he could help me get well.  All he did was accept me just as a was - which was the last thing I wanted to do.


This Abbott was like a light on the hill for me. His attitude of LovingKindness was a beacon guiding me through the dark night.  Gently, without pushing me in the slightest, he had pointed out the light to me and said 'Go that way...'  Slowly, his attitude and his teachings started to unravel the knots of judgement and self-hatred that had kept me unable to get any benefit from meditation or Buddhism. 

My other revelation was coming across the writer and teacher Tara Brach who practices, I'm sure, what many people would call Soft Buddhism, Buddhism Lite (or, I-can't-believe-it's-not-Buddhism Buddhism!)  But, for me, her teachings of Radical Acceptance have the emphasis on compassion, and psychological understanding, that I need in order to progress in my meditation.  Without the 'softness' she offers, I would not have been able to find a way in to meditation - and the door to Buddhism would have remained locked to me. 

I suppose I do practice a kind of 'watered down' Buddhism - but that doesn't mean it's an easy, feel-good Buddhism.  Radical Acceptance of constant pain and exhaustion is a hard path to follow.


Having said that, I also don't disagree with the New Heretic's post.  I'm very impatient with intellectual laziness when it comes to spirituality.  I've just spent 7 months living in Ubud, in Indonesia.  It's a small town with a growing yoga scene, and I think if I heard one more 'yoga tragic' congratulate themselves on bringing 'beautiful, healing energy to Ubud' I was going to scream. There seemed to be no comprehension that they were in a third-world country, and to pay your child's school fees.


I do think that Buddhism does need to adjust to Western values and psychology in some way in order to thrive in the West.  I doubt many people want Buddhism to morph into a religion resembling a Louise L Hay movie-of-the-week - but it is important to acknowledge that our individualistic and materialistic culture brings its own set of issues to meditation practice.

One thing I find really inspiring, is that we all have our own unique circumstances that lead us along our own spiritual paths.  The fact that I started off as a hard-core meditator and realised a much softer, kinder practice suited me more - and the New Heretics is looking for something a bit less wimpy in his practice  - shows that we all have our own, equally valid, paths to tread.  I'm hoping there's room for us all in the big wide world of Buddhism.

Good luck, and much metta, to us all!



Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stephen Levine - Pain meditation

Below is a meditation by the wonderful writer, teacher and poet Stephen Levine. 


Stephen, along with his wife Ondrea, are from the USA and have devoted much of their life to working with people with terminal illness or chronic pain.  His many books and meditations focus on death, dying, illness, grief, and the spiritual journey.  If you'd like a quick and warm-hearted introduction to Stephen and Ondrea's life check out this interview on You Tube.


This is a link to Stephen's personal site, where he sells CD's and tapes of his many wonderful guided meditations. This is a link to his books. Meetings at the Edge is my favorite book of his, because each chapter is the story of a person who is dealing with some kind of loss. It's a very intimate book, and would be a great introduction to his writings (although unfortunately, it doesn't have many written meditations in it.)

The meditation below, titled 'Healing Meditation,' is from the book 'Healing into Life and Death.'  This book is chock-full of written meditations.  I've picked one I've used a lot which is specifically for physical pain, although it could also easily be used for emotional pain as well.

The meditation is quite long, but if you didn't have the energy to do it all you could read through it and break it up into chunks.  In the introduction to this meditation Stephen writes:

 "In the beginning of this practice it may be difficult to make contact with an area so long isolated by the armor of our aversions.  But it is not advisable to rush healing.  As when working with pain one approaches a step at a time, work with the meditation for ten or fifteen minutes and then take a break and go fully back to the breath for a while, softening the belly and watching breath from that softness.  Not attacking the area even in the slightest we swing back to the healing or pain meditation for whatever period feels appropriate."
In other words: take it easy! 


You can do this meditation either by reading each line to yourself, or having someone read it to you.  You could also put it on tape and play it back to yourself (or, just buy a copy from Stephen's website if you are cashed up!) 


A Healing Meditation

[To be read slowly to a friend or silently to oneself.)

Come to a sitting position or whatever posture the body is a maintain for a period of time. And feel what sits here. Allow the attention to come into the body and feel the breath breathe itself in soft belly.

Let the body be soft and open. Let the awareness be gentle and allowing. Notice any area of the body which is in discomfort. Attend to the body, notice whatever distinct sensation draws the attention. Gently allow awareness to move toward the place that wants attending.

In this gentle approach toward discomfort, notice any resistance, any stiffness or numbness or coldness, any tension that denies entrance into this area. Notice whatever denial or fear limits access. Notice any fear or doubt that attempts to distract direct entrance into the discomfort.
 

Slowly, without the least force, gently allow awareness to approach the sensations generated in this area.

And begin to soften all around the sensations.
Letting the flesh soften to allow awareness within.
Softening.
Let space begin to open all about the edge of this area.
Gradually opening.
Softening all about sensation.
Softening the muscles.
Softening the tissue in which sensation arises.
Softening the muscles.
Skin soft. Flesh loosening, opening.
Allowing sensation to be as it is in soft flesh.


Feel the fibers in the muscles softening.  Letting go of pain. Tendons softening. Flesh softening. Skin softening.
Allowing sensation to float in soft flesh.
Softening.
Letting go all around sensation.
In soft body, in soft mind, just letting it be there.
Meeting the moment-to-moment sensations that arise there with moment-to.rnoment softening.
Softening the bone.
Softening to the very marrow.
Any tension that momentarily asserts itself allowed to float free.
Let it come. Let it go.
Moment-to-moment sensation arising in soft awareness.
Softness spreading all about sensation.
Gently, without force, gradually opening the tissue to let sensation float.
Letting go all around.
Softening to the very center of the cells.
That softening to the very center of the cells of the muscles, of the tissue in which sensation floats.
Awareness cradling sensation in soft open space.
Sensations floating in awareness.
The skin, the tissue, the muscles, the tendons soft and pliant.
Spacious.
Bone soft, allowing, willing.
Sensations arising like bubbles into space.
Space floating in space.
Awareness meeting moment-to-moment sensation with merciful softness.
Moment-to-moment sensation rising, floating in awareness.
Awareness receiving the subtlest flutter, the subtlest motion of sensation.
Softly. Clearly.
Awareness entering to the very heart of sensation.
Awareness exploring sensation floating in space.

Do the sensations stay still or do they move?
Does the area of sensation have a single shape or is it constantly changing?
What is that shape?
Moment-to-moment sensation floating in soft merciful awareness that explores tenderly the moment.
Do these sensations have density?
Are they thin or thick?
Are they round? Are they flat?
Moment-to-moment sensation received in moment-to-moment awareness.
Discovering the nature of sensation.
Do these sensations have a texture?
Are they rough? Are they smooth?
Do they stay the same or are they constantly changing?
Sensations floating in awareness.
Softening all about sensation Flesh soft muscles relaxed, open, tissue allowing and merciful.



Notice whatever thoughts arise that might limit this softness.
Are there feelings that harden the area? Fear or doubt?
Do the sensations whisper words like tumor or cancer or pain? Do

they cause tension around sensation?
Allowing levels and levels of softening to deepen all about sensation, explore the moment as it is.
And let such thoughts, such feelings too, float in a vast boundless awareness.
Soft awareness meeting sensation as it is moment to moment.
Attend to even the least tension in the mind that tenses the body and soften all about it.
Deeper and deeper softening.
Noticing how even the least thought might limit softness softness, soften yet deeper.
Investigating the moment as sensation.

Did these sensations move, or did they stay in one area?
Are there tendrils that connect this area with other areas of sensation in the body?
Moment-to-moment awareness.
Moment-to-moment sensation.
Moment-to-moment softening, allowing, receiving.
Sensation arising and dissolving in vast space.
Are the sensations soft or hard?
Are they hot or cold? Or neither?
Is there a feeling of pressure? A vibration? A movement?
Soft awareness opening into a vast spaciousness which allows sensation to unfold moment to moment in the clear light of mercy and awareness.
Meeting sensation as it arises instant to instant.
Is there a sound there? Do these sensations have a voice?
Is the voice familiar? What does it have to say?
Noticing softly, caringly, these sensations that may have gone so long unattended to. Meet them with a soft allowing awareness.
Sensations arising and dissolving in a spacious merciful awareness.
Relating to this area, to sensation, as if it were your only child.
Meeting them with love. With kindness. With mercy.
Sensations floating in a soft open awareness met with mercy and caring.

Does some image arise there?
Is there color there?
Just noticing whatever is there, nothing to create.
Just receiving sensation in loving kindness and care.
Touching it with mercy. Touching it with forgiveness.
Is there a feeling there, an attitude that seems to surround that area?
Noticing any old-mind residue that holds even in the least to these sensations, just let them go, let them float in the new moment-to-moment spaciousness of awareness and kindness and care.


Gently allowing awareness to cradle each moment of sensation.

Each sensation absorbed in loving kindness and mercy.
Allow love to enter sensation, floating in the softness, in the spacious heart of being all about this area.
Floating in compassion.
Floating in mercy.
Let the healing in.
Let your heart touch sensation moment to moment.

Let this area become the heart we all share.
Let the mercy you feel for so much in the world touch your pain as well.
Each moment of sensation received so gently. Moment-to-moment sensation arising and dissolving in the vast spaciousness of a merciful awareness.
Each moment of sensation dissolving in compassion for all those in pain.

Each moment dissolving, dissolving in mercy and loving kindness.
Each moment melting into infinite compassion and kindness.
Sharing this healing with all sentient beings.
Melting the discomforts of the world in tender mercy.
Meeting these sensations with kindness, forgiveness, and compassion. Meeting the world we all share in healing awareness.
Each moment floating.
Moment-to-moment sensation arising and dissolving in the boundaryless luminescence of awareness.
Love healing the discomforts of the world.
The despair and helplessness of all the worlds met by the loving kindness that receives sensation in the heart of awareness.
This healing healing all.
Sending mercy and loving kindness in the the body we all share.
Each moment of sensation absorbed in infinite compassion and care.
Each moment dissolving into the heart of healing.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rumi - "When I see you and how you are..."


When I see you and how you are,
I close my eyes to the other.
For your Solomon's seal I become wax
throughout my body. I wait to be light.
I give up opinions on all matters.
I become the reed flute for your breath.


You were inside my hand.
I kept reaching around for something.
I was inside your hand, but I kept asking questions
of those who know very little.


I must have been incredibly simple or drunk or insane
to sneak into my own house and steal money,
to climb over the fence and take my own vegetables.
But no more. I've gotten free of that ignorant fist
that was pinching and twisting my secret self.


The universe and the light of the stars come through me.
I am the crescent moon put up
over the gate to the festival.

This version of Rumi's poem is by Coleman Barks from,
"These Branching Moments: Forty Odes by Rumi."
Published by Copper Beech Press, 1988




This is one of my favorite poems by the 13th century Persian poet and mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi. I was interested to read today, on a website devoted to Rumi's poems, that many of the translations of Rumi's poems that we read in the West are really interpretations, rather than direct word-for-word translations.  If you're interested to see how divergent the interpretations can be, on this blog you can read three distinctly different versions of the above poem. 

The part I connect to most in this poem is towards the end, where Rumi writes,
I must have been incredibly simple or drunk or insane
to sneak into my own house and steal money
It is such a  comical way of describing  human behaviour; we act in ways that we think will better our own cause, but what we're really doing is harming ourselves. When I read this I realised that when I'm lost in anger or self-criticism I'm not improving my life, but breaking-in to it - "pinching and twisting" my secret-self.  

I love the imagery of the last few lines - the stars, the universe, the crescent moon, and the festival.  They invoke such a sense of joy and mystery. It feels to me that the time I spend in mindfulness meditation - just compassionately observing the ways I've been "incredibly simple or drunk or insane" - is slowly but steadily leading to a sense that the stars are shining through me, and through a transparent universe. 



Monday, October 19, 2009

The guest house


This being human is a guest house.
                Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meaness,
Some momentary awareness
                comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!...

The dark though, the shame, the malice,
               meet them at the door laughing,
                                and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
                 because each has been sent
                                    as a guide from beyond.


Rumi


I read this poem last night, just before sleeping.  As I was trying to sleep I ruminated on what kind of 'guest house' I was running.  How did I welcome new arrivals?  Was I this smiling Bed & Breakfast owner -  always on hand with a cup of hot chocolate to welcome weary and grumpy travellers? 




Or was I the gumpy manager of a cheap highway motel, with never a friendly smile for anyone?




Rumi's poem is a great reminder to me not to constantly judge each morning's new arrivals.  This morning there was pain, sadness and despair. 'Yet another day lost to exhaustion,' I thought, miserably. Instead of pushing this pain and misery away, or telling myself I just had to tough it out, I thought of this poem and tried to stay with my sensations.  'Pain, pain, misery, misery,' I repeated to myself.  

I realised what an aversion I have to feeling miserable!  Voices and images rose in my mind, all telling me that I was weak and self-absorbed to be focusing on my misery.  

We live in a culture that emphasizes positive thinking and an individualistic 'can-do' attitude.  How much, I wonder, does this culture allow us just to be sad? Just to focus, for a few minutes, on our daily pains - both large and small? I wonder if I will ever be able to sit with my difficult guests, welcoming them all...'as a guide from the beyond.' Will I ever be able to offer my sadness a cup of hot chocolate and a soft pillow for the night?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fishing without a hook

It took four years for me to be given a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. This is a piece I wrote a few years ago describing what it felt like to live with an undiagnosed condition.


I cried a lot last week. I cried on the tram. At the checkout counter of the local supermarket. At the dentists. Until two years ago I’d never cried in front of another person, but now I regularly expose trams full of Melbourne commuters to my tears.

I can go for weeks without crying at all but last week my emotions were bubbling too close to the surface. The most I could do was to cover my face and try to hide my tears from the curious, grey-suited commuters sitting opposite me. I was crying with overwhelming feelings of sadness, frustration, anger and (worst of all), self pity. The other people on the tram were going to work. I was going to the doctor.

I feel ashamed writing this because you must be thinking that I have a terrible illness and that I’m struggling for my life. The problem is that I don’t know what I have- it’s an undiagnosed medical condition. Possibly an unusual type of chronic fatigue syndrome or a depressive mood disorder. Then again, maybe not. And when you don’t know what you’ve got, you don’t know where it’s leading you, and you don’t know when it will end.

Two years ago, I suddenly stopped sleeping. I was in America studying at a mid-Western university and had just been to a Martin Luther King Day service at the local Baptist church. That night I couldn’t sleep; my brain was agitated and in overdrive, thoughts ran screaming through my head. The next morning as I struggled to get to my classes I thought I must have had a bad reaction to some white wine I’d had to drink the night before.

Unfortunately this wasn’t the case and over the next six months I had debilitating insomnia. I would finish up most nights on the couch in my living room watching terrible American early morning programs in a desperate effort to get back to sleep.

I was so frustrated and confused about what was happening to me and resented friend’s suggestions that I should get counselling or just try to relax. “I am relaxed,” I would say through clenched teeth, “I just can’t sleep!”

I returned home to Australia and started to feel not only exhausted and lethargic but a strange heavy, foggy feeling inside my head. I find it hard to explain what this feels like but cast your mind back to the worst hang-over you’ve ever experienced. Now, on top of this, imagine that someone had wrapped two bricks inside a doona and stuffed them inside your head. The muscles around your eyes ache, your head is heavy and pounding and it hurts to keep your eyes open. Top this up with a dose of exhaustion and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what it feels like to live inside my body!

I expend most of my energy going to doctor and being put on round after round of anti-depressant medication. “But I’m not depressed,” I say “I’m just so tired and I can’t do anything.” “But you’re crying,” say the doctors, “you must be depressed.” The doctors argue that my depression causes fatigue and I argue the opposite- that my fatigue causes depression. They’re caring but patronising, and I long for someone to take me seriously. I want to scream at them “I’m not an idiot! I’m smart and motivated! You didn’t know me before I got sick- I was a ’somebody’ then!’

Friends and family who can work, or read or go for a hit of tennis tell me that I’ll be better soon, that one day this will be just a memory. They say, “You won’t sleep if you worry about it- just stop worrying.” Or, “what you need to do is to try and go to work, then you’ll be so exhausted you’ll sleep.” Walking along the beach with me one day my father looked out at some fisherman fishing off the jetty. “That’s what you need to do,” he said, “some fishing. It’d be really relaxing for you.” “But dad,” I protested, “I’m a vegetarian!” Unfazed, he replied, “that doesn’t matter, just fish without the hook.”

I go to alternative health practitioners who tell me I have a small problem and that I’ll be better in about five days if I take the herb they recommend. Many, many ‘five day’s and thousands of dollars later it becomes easy to be cynical about sudden cures. I have to try and find the balance between hoping that something will work but feeling crushed by disappointment when it doesn’t, and being so bitter and cynical about treatments that I don’t open myself up to trying them.

I try to stay positive and not doubt myself, but I long to meet someone else who experiences the physical symptoms that I do. I want to have a name for what I have so I can find out about other people who have it. I want to feel like I have a ‘real’ illness and that I’m not just making all of this up in some bizarre subconscious effort to get attention or to be able to drop out of life. 

It’s become easier to sink into depression over the last few months. I always thought of grief as something you feel when someone dies, but I’m not grieving the loss of another person, I’m in grief for the life I’ve lost and the vital energetic person I used to be. 

I used to be so active. I had so many plans for my life. I wanted every task finished ten minutes before I started it. In my 21st birthday speech my best friend joked that I would be reading a book, brushing my teeth, and practicing piano simultaneously in order to make maximum use of my time. To help me cope with hours of enforced rest and two years out of the work force I have to rethink this way of life. This is a difficult thing to do because these patterns of activity and achievement are part of my philosophy of life. I think that time spent relaxing is wasted time. It’s really difficult to see that, for me, spending time not achieving is an achievement in itself.

As hard as this process is, there are certainly rewards. I now think less and feel more. I’m less likely to make harsh judgements about other people and more likely to feel empathy for their problems. I try to ask people how they feel rather than telling them how I think they feel. I appreciate the beauty of the Fitzroy Oval against the backdrop of the city lights as I walk around the oval at sunset. I lie on the floor of my living room and do nothing but listen to the sounds of the birds outside and the voices of people walking by.

I treasure these moments of peace and acceptance because they are rare and hard won. The uncertainly and self-doubt of living with my un-named illness never really leaves me and for the first time in fifteen years I pray to the blurry, half-formed concept of God that I left behind with Sr Margaret-Mary in Year 8 religious education class. I pray for faith and acceptance. For humility and patience. But most of all I pray, in a very childish way, that God will make me better.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Moogs, Korgs and Etsy - an off-topic post


This post is extremely off-topic and no matter how I swing it I can't get it to relate in any way to meditation or chronic illness.  You have been warned...

Last night, huddled under my doona in the arid frozen wilderness AKA my bedroom, I was distracting myself from the bitter cold by surfing around one of my favorite websites, Etsy

Etsy is kind of like E-Bay, except for people with OCD (Obsessive Craft Disorder).  It only sells handmade items, and, yes, if you're wondering, there are still people out there who crochet. 

Last night I stumbled upon the wackiest Etsy site I've ever seen.  There is someone out there who makes miniature, felt versions of synthesizers and keyboards. Turning this -




Into this-




The Etsy shop owner, says "If there is a special keyboard or guitar, pedal or amp that you would like to have a little felt version of, please email me and i can do my very best to make it tiny, cute, and felty."

Flicking onto the comments section I found a happy buyer who'd bought one of these 7cm-long felted synths for US$75, and gave a glowing review saying, "This little Korg is completely awesome...an excellent complement to my lifelong keyboard/synth obsession." 

I read this aloud to my family while we were tucking into a roast leg of lamb dinner and there was such an explosion of laughter that we spent the next 30 minutes picking off teeny pieces of roast potato and lamb from the surrounding furniture.

Who was this zany synthesizer aficionado, we wondered?  Here's what I've come up with...

Somewhere in outer metropolitan Melbourne is a single man living in a nondescript house. We'll call him...Dale.  He works for the post office. He's a quiet worker, but, as he does his delivery rounds, he occasionally breaks into air-keyboarding some of the greatest keyboard riffs from the '80's. Often it's the beginning of Europe's 'The Final Countdown,' or, on more carefree days, when the mail load is light, 'Jump' by Van Halen.

Coming home every evening Dale puts on his blue velvet slippers and pads down into his basement, where, stored in carefully welded racks around the walls, is his collection of Moogs, Yamahas, Rolands and Korgs. Each keyboard has a beautifully crocheted cover, designed to protect it from the vicissitudes of Melbourne's climate.  Dale's mother makes the covers. She's locked upstairs in an airing cupboard with a size 7b crochet hook and a couple of balls of black Patons Dreamtime Pure Wool 2ply for company.

Tonight, Dale feels something stirring at the very depths of his soul.  His full collection of 88 key analog synthesizers feels somehow incomplete.  "What is it I'm yearning for?" he wonders, with an Oprah-esque tilt of his head. Suddenly, a thrilling electronic glissando reverberates through his being, and it comes to him.

"Of course!  I need to pay $75 - the equivalent of 1 years medical costs for a Congolese AIDS orphan - for a miniature, 7cm-long, felted, Korg MS-20.  It will be an excellent complement to my lifelong keyboard/synth obsession."

Here is what he bought...



 What the?!

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