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.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Tension and relaxation

In last month's post, I wrote about attention. Sometimes the mind will focus in on one object or activity, becoming narrow or concentrated. At other times it can be open and spacious, not fixed anywhere in particular, open to whatever comes along.

 Our physical bodies also move between two poles of tension and openness. Muscles contract and relax in order to flex and extend our joints; the work of moving our limbs, our bodies, and other objects (by carrying, throwing, dragging or pushing) involves repeated tension and relaxation of muscles. Even the work of the heart, digestive system, and the circulation relies on muscular tension and relaxation.

When we make a great effort, our bodies become tense and tight. Interestingly, this is true even of mental effort: people will unconsciously tense their jaw, brow or shoulders when they have to memorise something by heart or calculate difficult sums.

And when we take a nice bath or sauna, or have a massage, or just a nap, our bodies again become relaxed and loose and open. It's impossible to be physically tense and yet feel mentally calm and at ease.

Your body should move freely between effort and non-effort, between tension and relaxation. Hard work and effort can be rewarding and satisfying. People enjoy physical sport and exercise. But when the body and mind can't relax, we become anxious, restless, aggressive, sleepless. And if we can't move freely and work hard from time to time, we become depressed, lethargic, hopeless. So you can observe how your body is, and in particular watch those moments when it changes from effort to relaxation, from non-effort to work. Does your body move fluidly from one way of being to another, or do you get stuck?

At rest, a cat is completely soft. If you pick her up she flops over your arm, as if she has no skeleton. Yet when she moves, she is lightning-quick, strong and direct. And then, in the blink of an eye, she is at rest again. This is the natural way our bodies should function.

****

We will have a meditation morning in Ranelagh on Saturday 27 May, 10am to 1pm. All welcome, including beginners.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Wellspring

Jacinta Curley (whose art you can see on this site) will be exhibiting her work in Ballinasloe Library this June. The title of the exhibition is "Wellspring".

Art can be nourished in the deep, open awareness of meditation. And, in turn, art can transmit that spirit to the people who view it.

The exhibition will be launched on Saturday 24 June with a meditation event. From 2 to 3 pm there will be silent sitting and a discussion on the theme of the exhibition. All are welcome, especially beginners. If you have never meditated before this will be the perfect opportunity to try it out!


http://www.outoftheordinaryart.net

Thursday, 27 April 2017

What is "attention"?

You've probably had the experience of being absorbed in some particular task or problem, so that your attention is focused, narrowed-in on one particular object or activity. If someone tries to talk to you at a time like this you don't really hear what they say. A focused attention excludes much of what is going on around you.

Sometimes being absorbed in this way feels good. When you are "in the zone" playing a sport, or captivated by music. You lose your sense of self. The digressive, churning activity of thought slows down or vanishes completely.

Sometimes being absorbed in this way does not feel good. When you cannot stop ruminating about a problem, or when your fears won't leave you alone. You feel anxious, trapped. You cannot enjoy your food or the company of friends because your attention will not slacken its rigid grip on the problem.

Probably you have had the experience of being tired and sluggish, bored and listless. In this mood attention fails to fix anywhere. You cannot focus enough to read a book or watch television, you barely take in what is said to you. Thoughts ramble and churn but go nowhere, they are never really about anything. You feel trapped in a fog.

And possibly, you have had the experience of being completely open, when your attention is not focused on one particular object, and the whole world lies before you all at once. When the colours and tastes, even the touch of a breeze on your skin, all have a depth and richness not usually experienced, yet your awareness is free to move to whatever calls it, not getting fixed anywhere.

Attention functions in different ways. And there is the question of how it moves from one way of functioning to another. You can deliberately fix your attention on something, or it can be captured against your will. Sometimes concentration comes easy, sometimes it is a struggle. Sometimes you can relax your concentration; at other times, you can't.

We look, too often, to the world around us in order to know how we are. We focus on our external circumstances, and on the opinions of other people. Our attention is itself the nature of this looking, the functioning of this awareness. But attention itself gets little attention. It is taken for granted.

Meditation means to stop taking this for granted. It means to turn your curiosity inwards, toward the functioning of attention itself.


In formal meditation sessions, you can experience attention in all its different moods. I particularly love to notice the way the attention can change. At the end of a group meditation sit someone rings a bell and it seems that, in a split second, attention undergoes a change. The mind that was lost in thought suddenly shifts to the sound of the bell; the mind that is held in a rigid focus suddenly relaxes with relief, like air escaping from a balloon. There is awareness before the bell, and there is awareness when the bell sounds, and there is awareness after the bell; but attention undergoes a transformation as the mind announces "ah, now the meditation is over".

You have probably heard the simile which says that the mind is like a wild monkey, swinging here and there, and the whole point of meditation is to tame the monkey, to make it calm down. To focus attention and become one-pointed.

Personally, I think monkeys belong in the wild. I do not think they should be tamed and domesticated. It is easy to have ideas about how the mind should be. But we should at least try to understand this thing called attention, and observe directly how it behaves, how it moves and flows.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Reflections on reflectiveness

"The world arrives to us all at once. It’s complete, whole. When someone is speaking to you, your brain filters out the background noise so you hear their voice louder. The brain is always working to separate the important from the unimportant, editing the reality we perceive according to our fears and desires, and because of this we miss the original wholeness of experience. We live at one remove from our basic experience: it’s necessary at times, but also tiring. Sometimes we need to relax. And relaxation means - well, it means returning to the whole, to the complete experience, to the way things were before the mind took over."

***
Some reflections on meditation were broadcast recently on RTE Radio 1 in the "A Living Word" Slot. You can listen back or download the podcasts at http://www.rte.ie/radio1/a-living-word/podcasts/ (Monday 6 to Friday 10 March).

***
We will hold our monthly meditation morning this Sunday 26 March in Ranelagh, 10am to 1pm. All are welcome.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Meditation is not a skill

Doing a handstand is a skill. Not everyone can do it, but almost anyone can learn how.

There are different stages on the way to doing a handstand. Maybe it hurts to put weight on your wrists, but you can build strength. Then you can walk your feet up a wall but you can't kick up into a handstand. Then later you can kick up into a handstand against a wall, but you can't keep your balance away from the wall. Then later you can balance without the wall for five seconds, and you want to make it longer.

Everyone can find out what level they are at. And with practice, you get better at it.

Meditation is not like this.

Meditation does not have easily-defined stages. And there is no inarguable standard, no objective feedback which tells you whether you succeeded or not. You may feel that you had a good meditation or a bad meditation, but it's your own subjective mind which decides what counts as a "good meditation", and your mind is not always right. It's easy to kid yourself, or to put yourself down. With a handstand, you either succeed or you fall over. Meditation is not like this.

The reason is simple: meditation is not a skill. We talk about it as if it was. You go to a teacher, you are given instructions, told how to self-correct if the mind wanders away. Spiritual teachings talk about different "stages" the meditator passes through (five, ten, twelve... it depends who you ask). We look to teachers to evaluate our progress, and tell us when we succeed. But really, this is all a game. We only talk like this because, seemingly, we have to say something. It gets us started, it keeps us going, it helps to pass the time. But...

It becomes a problem if we start looking for signs that we've learnt something new. Sometimes we look inside our meditation and try to see if we've succeeded. Are the thoughts all gone? Am I fully relaxed? Sometimes we look inside our life. Am I always calm? Am I always generous? Am I blessed and holy and admired by everyone I meet? We look for things to criticise in the hope that one day we won't find anything.

Of course, I can't say that meditation won't make you calmer, more generous, more holy. It's just that holiness, or enlightenment, isn't a skill. You don't get better at it by practicing. You don't get worse at by neglecting it. It's a different type of thing altogether.

Sometimes we have to practice, sometimes we can't help trying. We don't have much choice about this. But there's something which reveals itself when we stop trying. Something becomes clear when we stop trying to make things into something else. Something like the way a flower grows, which isn't a skill or even anyone doing something, but just a part of the world.

Something like the way human isn't a skill, it's simply what we are.

***

We will have a meditation morning next Saturday25 February  in Ranelagh, all are welcome to attend.

10:00  Gathering
10.20 - 11:00 Silent meditation
11:00 - 11:20 Tea break
11:20 - 11:50 Silent meditation
11:50 - 12.50 Silent sitting / discussion
12:50 - 13:00 Final silence

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Meditation morning, Saturday 21 January

The practice of meditation is simply to ask the question "What does it feel like to be me?"

What does it feel like to be me, right now, in this moment?

And the whole trick is, don't try to answer with your mind. In fact, you don't answer this question yourself. Let your body answer; let the room you're sitting in answer (or the car, or bus, or street, or wherever you happen to be). Just ask the question and let the whole universe answer for you:

What does it feel like, right now, to be me?

We will have a meditation morning next Saturday in Ranelagh, all are welcome to attend.

10:00  Gathering
10.20 - 11:00 Silent meditation
11:00 - 11:20 Tea break
11:20 - 11:50 Silent meditation
11:50 - 12.50 Silent sitting / discussion
12:50 - 13:00 Final silence

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Life is always new

Happy New Year!

For many people, the new year is a time for new beginnings, for fresh starts. We associate this fresh start with making new resolutions; new plans, new ambitions, new promises.

In fact, for a lot of people I've met in meditation centres and on retreats, spiritual life is all about making plans, resolutions and promises. Promising that we'll give up this, and work harder at that, and try to do better with the other.

It contrasts with the advice I got from Zen teachers, which was always, to sit without any plans; to let this moment be, without trying to change it in anyway.

Personally, I've often experienced a sense of newness, of freshness, at the start of January. And there must be some reason for this, because the "new year" is just an arbitrary point in time; a social convention rather than a fact of nature. I think it has nothing to do with the resolutions and plans we make for the future. In fact I think the opposite is true; the feeling of newness comes because, for brief day or two, we let go of all our old projects and aims.

The Christmas season ends, and all the preparation and socialising is done. The work of last year, whether completed or successful or not, has ended. And for maybe just a day, before we take up our new resolutions, everything is new.

Time is a strange phenomenon. It's hard to say if we experience time without the help of memory and thinking about the future. Much of our experience of time comes from our ambitions and fears: these give the feeling of time running out, or dragging on. In periods of happiness, when we don't think too much, we don't notice the time.

When the step away (even temporarily) from our plans and intentions, we experience a kind of freedom. We can step aside from the story we tell ourselves about our life and its progress, and experience the world anew. It may be momentary, but it's always available, not just in January.

*********

We'll be holding a meditation morning on Saturday 21 January in our usual venue. All are welcome.
10:00  Gathering
10.20 - 11:00 Silent meditation
11:00 - 11:20 Tea break
11:20 - 11:50 Silent meditation
11:50 - 12.50 Silent sitting / discussion
12:50 - 13:00 Final silence