Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Enlightenment already is

When you sit in quiet inwardness, reality reveals itself naturally. This reality is just the nature of things, independent of your thoughts and opinions.

In every moment, body and mind show their true condition. This has nothing to do with your thoughts. So let go of all thoughts and opinions about yourself. Drop every thought that begins with the word “I...” These thoughts are not reality. They are not true and not false. They are just objects that appear and disappear in the wide field of reality.

Often people think that we have to struggle hard to attain enlightenment. Is this true? What do we find if we stop looking at reality through the lens of our opinions?

The Zen teacher Nansen said “Ordinary mind is the Way”. In the Christmas story, God is present in human form: the shepherds are simply called to witness this. No struggle is necessary.

Enlightenment, or the divine, is not something we have to struggle towards. It reveals itself moment by moment. All you have to do is stop, and see for yourself how things are.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Surrender to the will of God

A common theme in the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) is the call to surrender to the will of God. "Not my will but thine, O Lord".

This is a simple message, a very powerful one. It tells us that on the path to enlightenment, the way of spiritual growth, your willpower means nothing. Your ability to set goals, to visualise the correct course of action, to make disciplined, sustained effort: all this is irrelevant. Your volition, your willpower, cannot help you.

What does help is to cultivate the hunger for enlightnement, to be awake to the yearning for God. But this is not about setting goals or making an effort.

Religious people often misunderstand this call. They think we have to figure out what God's will is, and then determine the correct course of action. They think we need to make disciplined, sustained effort. More volition, more willpower. They miss the point completely.

Acorns don't have the goal of growing into trees. The sun doesn't make an effort to shine. Your original beingness is not affected by your plans and willpower. You find it through surrender, in letting go.

(Atheist will dismiss the call to surrender, because they don't believe in God. But so what? If someone says "You need to face your inner demons", you known what they mean, even if you don't believe in demons).


Sometimes, the ability to set goals and make plans is useful. But in the big scheme of things, none of it matters. Let go. Relax. When you are tired, you will know it. When you are hungry, you will know it. When you want company, you will know it. These simple desires are the important desires, and relatively easy to satisfy.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Some hints on relaxing

Telling someone to relax is never a good idea. I don't think anyone, in recorded history, ever relaxed on command. If you tell someone to relax the usual result is that they stiffen defensively and hiss at you, through gritted teeth, "I AM RELAXED!!" This is true even if you tell yourself to relax.

Instead of the simple imperative, here are three suggestions.


1. Feel
Try this experiment. Sit somewhere comfortably for a few moments with your eyes closed. I want you to direct your attention to your lips. Whatever you feel there, pay close attention. If you get distracted, bring your attention back to your lips. Stay like this for at least two minutes.

I guarantee you a few things will happen. Firstly, you might not feel much at first but as the seconds go by, you will notice more and more sensations. You become more sensitive.

Secondly, you will notice some muscular tension in your lips. Unless you are highly unusual, you are probably pursing your lips harder than is strictly necessary to keep your mouth closed. I mean slightly harder, this is probably a very subtle tension, but still more than necessary.

Thirdly, as you notice this, your lips automatically start to relax somewhat.

You may repeat this experiment with any part of the body. Some areas will be more sensitive than others but the results will otherwise be similar.

2. Don't make choices
Combine this with the feeling experiment. The invitation is simple: don't have any idea in mind about how your body should be right now. Don't try to copy what you think "proper posture" or "relaxed posture" looks like. Don't try to produce any particular feeling. Making volitional effort takes energy; relaxation means letting go of effort. Simply be. Take your will-power out of it.

3. Allow
When you start to notice unnecessary tension, the body will naturally want to let go of it. This doesn't require any volitional choice, it happens by itself. All you need to supply is attention and patience.

As you relax, your body may start to rearrange itself. The shoulders want to open and sink. If you're lying down you may notice a tense arch in your lower back, and your hips now want to reposition themselves. Let this happen. There might be some gentle swaying, even some shaking, some sighing and yawning. You don't choose any of this. But don't try to stop it either.

Try this regularly. For two minutes at a time, or for an hour. You can't over-do it, and even little amounts add up.

***

Some upcoming events:
- There will be a meditation morning on Saturday 23 September, 10am to 1pm.
- Our residential retreat takes 28 to 30 October, a chance to experience deep practice in the beautiful countryside.
- Weekly group meditation on Mondays at 8pm.
All are welcome.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Go on a retreat

For many yogis and meditators, going on retreat is a regular part of their practice. A retreat is life simplified, with distractions removed. It's a chance to live at a slower pace, to do less, to make fewer choices. 

For beginners, a retreat can be a good environment to learn the practicalities of meditation. Things can be revealed over a few days that are hard to convey in a weekly yoga or meditation class.

Retreats uncover a deeper stillness which flows over into the world of work, family and society.

A retreat is not an individual experience. We have to share our living space and support each other. All participants help out with the housework (cleaning, cooking, washing-up). Caring for the building, the environment and each other is part of spiritual practice (which is just another way of saying, "part of life").

The meals should be tasty and nourishing. Food should be a joy but not an indulgence. Many of us have developed habits of using food as entertainment or as distraction. Retreats introduce a new way of eating. We don't choose our meal times and we don't make choices about what we eat (although allowances are made for food allergies). We practice eating "just enough": no more, and no less, than is needed to nourish body and soul.

Similarly, we practice speaking "just enough": no more, and no less. In doing the housework, we speak only as much as is necessary to get the job done. At meals and other times, complete silence is the rule. There is also time to catch up with friends and to share our experiences, spiritual and otherwise. But we can also learn to be with each other, to be companionable, without relying on gossip and chatter. 

As a further aspect of silence, retreatants can abstain from reading newspapers, magazines, novels and other non-spiritual literature. Some may choose not to read at all, although this is a matter for personal choice. It's a kind of "detox" for the mind.

The retreat is not some ideal society, it is not a replacement family. The world is not a broken place that we need to escaoe from. But the relentless torrent of internet, television, 24-hour news channels, of work, socialising and family duties, can leave us tired, with our senses blunted and dulled. We lose our sensitivity to life's wonder and joy. The good news is that we are not trapped. You can leave behind your usual roles of partner, parent, employee. You can see yourself anew, in a simpler light; you can come again to your senses. 

There are many meditation and yoga retreats organised around the country, and I strongly encourage you to try one. The Ranelagh Zen Group will hold a retreat this October (28-30 October, the bank holiday weekend) in County Roscommon. Please come along to our Monday evening meditations if you want to learn more. 


Friday, 11 August 2017

Don't worry if you don't understand

I don't know what happens to you when you sit down and meditate for ten or twenty minutes. I don't know because something different happens every time you sit. From one person to another, from one sit to another, it's never exactly the same.

Most beginners have strong ideas about what they want to happen. They want to become calmer, or happier, or they want their mind to stop. These things might happen, but then again they might not. If it happens this time it might not happen next time. Sometimes you become happy. Sometimes you end up noticing how anxious you are. Sometimes you become calm. Sometimes you only seem to become more restless. You can't predict what will happen.

But one thing should happen every time you sit. By the end of your sit, even a short one, you should be be more sensitive than you were when you started. By which I mean, you should have come to be aware of something that you were previously not conscious of at all.

Perhaps, after sitting for a while, you notice muscular tension around your mouth, or in your shoulders. It was there before you sat but only now, in the quiet of meditation, do you actually start to feel it.

Or perhaps, after sitting for a while, you really notice your breathing. In and out. You breathe all day but most of us, most of the time, pay no heed. But now you feel it, along with everything else you feel and see and hear. It becomes part of your conscious awareness.

You don't have to meditate for a long time. You don't need to make a big effort. But in every sit you should become just a bit more sensitive; you will start to feel something you were ignoring before. This might seem trivial, but it is hugely important.

***

When we think about philosophy, or the truth, or the nature of reality, we habitually think about some kind intellectual truth. We want an understanding which is all about the mind. When the mind believes "I understand", I feel happy; and when the mind believes "I don't understand", I feel anxious.

And we bring this reliance on intellectualism to our meditation. We chase the mental notion of understanding, and confuse this with knowing reality. But reality and truth are both bigger than the mind. Reality and truth are not there to be understood. They are there to be felt.

So always, when you sit, don't worry about the mind. Don't worry if you don't understand. In fact, it's better to feel like you don't understand, even if that is an unpleasant feeling. Do not waste time chasing after intellectual understanding. Your life is not like a crossword puzzle, something for the brain to solve. It is far richer than the mind, alone, can contain.

Knowing reality is not a question of becoming smarter. It's about becoming more sensitive.

***

We will hold a meditation morning on Saturday 19 August, 10am to 1pm, in Ranelagh. All are welcome.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Stop looking for improvements

Open awareness is what happens when you stop looking for improvements. "Being present" is the natural state when you stop thinking about the prospect of a better tomorrow.

People who meditate often get wrapped up in ideas about "mindfulness", the promise of a better life. We're too busy looking forward to the pay-off, some future enlightenment, to live in the present moment. If you get a group of meditators together to talk about "the present moment" you'll find they want to talk about anything but this present moment. They might discuss meditation techniques or philosophical theories. They might relate experiences they remember from the past (or read about in books). They can talk about "the present moment" as an abstract concept, but it's very hard to get them to say anything about this actual present moment that they're experiencing right now.

Theories and philosophies and memories are attractive because we think they will lead us to understanding. We believe they will help us solve the great riddle, and unlock a better world for us... a future enlightenment. But the thing is, this present moment isn't in the future.

Awareness, mindfulness, whatever you call it, isn't a riddle to be solved. It isn't a skill to be mastered. It isn't something we need theories to explain. It simply is, and to experience it in its radical openness, you just need to stop grasping about for some better alternative to what is happening right now.


***

There will be a meditation morning in Ranelagh Saturday week 29 July (10am to 1pm). All are welcome. Monday evening meditation (8pm) continues throughout the summer.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Be open to the possibility of surprise

Some people worry constantly, replaying past hurts and imagining possible futures, even though the present moment is without danger.

And sometimes we tell ourselves that we are in control, that we can can manage, that we are getting by; but in fact the body-mind is carrying unrecognised anxiety, fear and sadness which we don't want to feel.

Great effort is expended in avoiding what this present moment feels like; turning away from the emotions of the body and mind.

So when you practice stillness, be open to the possibility of surprise. You might be surprised by joy. You might be surprised by sadness.

But don't turn away. There is something important in this emotional space which your willpower does not control. It asks for space and attention to reveal itself. If a feeling keeps recurring, something is calling out to be heard.