Do You Want To?

Almost nobody begins a meditation practice for reasons that will permit them to continue once they hit the wall.

If you meditate because you believe yourself to be special, your reward will be to discover that you are nothing special at all.

If you meditate because you believe it will bring you peace, your reward will be to have your understanding of the nature of peace shattered.

If you meditate because you think it will help you manage your life, your reward will be to discover you have no control over anything whatsoever.

Still want to practice? Most do not.

Below is a lengthy quote from an article by Ken McLeod. He begins the section with a Nasrudin story:

One day, while staying at a friend’s house, Nasrudin peered over the wall into the neighbor’s yard and saw the most wonderful garden he had ever seen. He noticed an old man patiently weeding a flower-bed and asked,

“This is a beautiful garden. I’d like to have one just like it. How do you make a garden like this?”

“Twenty years hard work.”

“Never mind,” said Nasrudin.

And then he continues:

“You say you want to be awake and present in your life, but you practice only occasionally, and even then, for relatively short periods. Maybe you do practice regularly, but your practice only goes so far, stopping at a wall that you can sense but can’t name. What stops you? Are you willing to touch that wall, touch it and go into it? Are you willing to be present in any and every experience that arises, whether it be anger, shame, love, success, heartbreak, victory, insult or failure? What do you actually want from your practice?…

“Willingness means you practice living in the world of immediate experience, the world in which there is no time, the world in which you cannot trade or share a single thing with anyone, the world in which not a single person, not even you, exists, the world that is what you experience right now. It also means ‘twenty years hard work.’”
— Ken McLeod, in “Three Questions”, and article on the Unfettered Mind website

Thank you, Ken, for (much more than) twenty years hard work.

Reconnecting What?

Whenever I sit for practice, I reconnect. But with what? And what is it that reconnects?

Butt to cushion, obviously.

A few small rituals suitable to formal practice (or not):
Connect lighter with candle, incense with candle flame, perhaps open a prayer book.
This sets up a connection with something else – something called “intention.”
The movements and words automatically engender a sense of slowing down.
(In relation to what?)

Things settle.
Reconnecting with physical sensations… twitches, itches, tingles, pulses, warmth, textures, that normally go un-noticed.
They come and go. Just sensations.
(Pleasure? Pain? Who decides?)

Things settle.
Reconnecting with emotions. Ripples touch awareness: anger, contentment, confusion, boredom, love, one after another, temporarily unmoored from palisades of memory, view, opinion. Just feelings.
(Whose feelings? Who’s feeling?)

Things settle.
Reconnecting with thoughts: to find them as they are and not be lost in them. Just thoughts.

If you believe your life, this makes no sense. A waste of time.
If you doubt, doors open. Narnia will never be the same.


Franca Leeson begins a new series of classes May 14, 2014: see Meditation Class: Reconnecting for details.

Meditating over the Holidays — 10 Tips

You’ve developed a nice meditation practice — congratulations! You sit every day, you face the stresses and strains of daily life with calm and equanimity, and you feel that, finally, you’re beginning to get some kind of handle on your patterns.

Then… you go home for Christmas. Or Christmas comes home for you. Either way, now more than ever a budding meditation practice can fall apart. But this is actually the very best time to practice:

  • First, the disruption in your daily routine will challenge your discipline. If you can keep your practice solid through this, it will be stronger than ever.
  • Second, contact with your family will probably bring up a lot of old emotional skeletons: what a great opportunity to work with compassion and awareness!

Here are 10 tips to help you make the most of it:

mediation-snow1. Decide each night when and where you’re going to meditate the next day.
Then do it. Early in the morning is best, as holiday schedules are unpredictable — best to get to it sooner. Bonus: meditating in the morning will probably set you up for a calmer day.

2. During overnight visits, let your hosts/guests know you will take time out to meditate each day.
Be flexible — don’t compel your hosts to build their day around your meditation schedule. But let them know you will need that 30 minutes at some point each day.

bolsterzafuhandle3. If possible, take your meditation cushion with you.
Bringing it along supports your commitment as well as your seat.

4. Adopt a really obvious meditation posture, like sitting on the floor or facing a wall, when you sit in a non-private space while others might come around. That way, if Uncle Ralph wanders in while you’re meditating in the family room at 7am, he’ll (hopefully) know not to start chatting with you.

ear5. Off the cushion (and on!), practice deep listening.
This is especially helpful when visiting people who have a lot to say. Imagine that your whole body is an ear, and feel the vibrations of what they are saying moving into and through you. Listen to more than their words: hear their tone, their body language. Most important: include in your attention your own voice and inner responses.

6. Take a mindful walk every day.
Whether alone or accompanied, open your senses to everything that’s there: sights, sounds, smells, sensations. Give your walk your full attention.

grumpy7. When you get grumpy, use the opportunity to practice sending and taking.
Imagine you can take all the grumpiness in the world into you in one in-breath, leaving everyone else free of it. Then imagine putting all the nice things you enjoy into one out-breath, and give it all away to others.

8. Take one mindful breath.
When you think of it, whatever is happening, jump into the gap created by your awareness and take one mindful breath.

yikes9. When you mess up, let go!
If you forget to meditate, or meditate “wrong”, or behave like a jerk, that’s your cue to just let go. You have no control over the past, and you can’t control the future: it’s what you do right now that counts. So don’t waste time beating yourself up or constructing stories about how bad/good/indifferent you are. Just carry on, take the next step forward.

10. Imagine every encounter will be your last.
The only thing we can really count on is impermanence: death can come to anyone at any time. Bearing this in mind can help you focus on what’s truly important.

Why Do You Practise?

Found in the novel Looking for Alaska by John Green. The book is unrelated to Sufism or spiritual practice, but this story popped up at a crucial time.

Rabe’a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, “I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of heaven or fear of hell, but because He is God.”

Working with Your Inner (and Outer) Critic

One of the best ways to avoid experience is to project material out onto others. Let’s take being critical as an example. Criticism is often a family disease, passed from generation to generation, which is why it can come up pretty sharply at this time of year.

In my case, I learned to be very sharply critical in a number of ways, including nagging, nasty jokes, “straightening people out”, and so on. When I nag my husband or kids, I sometimes have strange moments of clarity wherein I hear my mother’s rhythms and tones in my own voice. A sobering experience!

So I look inside, very carefully, when I experience the impulse to criticize. I find that internally I have a critical voice that is talking almost all the time, telling me things I should be doing to improve myself or the world. Under that, discomfort…an anxiety, a sense of things being out of control, of having the responsibility to sharply put things back into “order”. Under that, there is anger. Anger that the world is not cooperating with my need for things to be “in order”. Under that, there is fear. Fear that if things are not all “in control” I will “lose everything” and “be abandoned”. And under all of that, a sense of being vulnerable and alone.

So it is the energy of this fear that cascades upwards through my mind and finds an outlet in criticism. By allowing it to do so, I’m missing the opportunity to simply experience the fear in its true state: simply as energy. I am cultivating the habit of nagging (when has nagging ever helped?). I’m causing suffering for those around me. I am teaching my sons the habit of nagging as well, just as my own mother taught me. But worst of all I’m falling deeper asleep, even as I feel so clear and “right” about my judgments.

When people are critical, they are generally feeling that internal critical voice. This, ironically, makes them hypersensitive to criticism themselves, because anything anybody says that could be seen as criticism is amplified many times by their internal critic, and the only way to silence it is to fight back, defend ourselves and prove them wrong. None of it works. None of it relieves our suffering, it simply distracts us from the pain of feeling what is really there.

When we have a meditation practice, it’s typical to start to see all kinds of futile and hypocritical qualities in the behaviour of our friends and family. But observing the foibles of others without recognizing their resonance within ourselves can turn us cruel. So if you experience criticism, or notice the impulse in yourself to criticize, hooray! Here’s an opportunity to practice. Try to look at the pain beneath the interaction: their pain, and your own. You don’t need to fix it, or transform it, or figure it out, or do anything at all. Just acknowledge that it is there, and observe it. Feel it resonate in mind. Let it come, and then let it go, because it will. Things always come and go, that’s their nature.

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
— Leonard Cohen

Getting to the Good Bits

Meditation is a delicate balance. We’re in this because we want to end our suffering. That is renunciation, and is actually essential to a good practice. But when we start looking for a specific outcome, like enlightenment, balance, stability, etc., we just get even more confused. As long as “getting to the good bits” is on the agenda, we’re in our own way. Because wanting to get to the good bits IS the obstacle.

Remember that nobody, not even the Dalai Lama, not even the Buddha, has ever had any control whatsoever over the outcome of their meditation efforts.

Every time we sit down it is different. But letting go of the illusion of control and just focussing on the work causes a kind of internal release or relaxation. This experience of release is important: you don’t only renounce the mental habits that cause suffering, you also renounce misguided efforts to avoid the suffering that has already arrived.

At the beginning of learning how to meditate, one sits on a cushion, adopts the right posture, and waits for the halo to land. Then there’s this whole period of confusion and struggle when we realize the halo isn’t landing, instead it seems to be raining poop. Eventually, we give up trying to fight the poop and — well, if a halo doesn’t exactly land, at least we reach another level. We reach a level where the cushion is a refuge, even when it means feeling our pain instead of avoiding it — where we can see that sitting deepens sanity.

So forget about the good bits. I can’t guarantee you they’ll happen, and I can’t guarantee they’ll not happen. It’s what IS happening that is important.

Thoughts and Feelings

A lot of people hold the assumption that the objective of meditation practice is to stop having thoughts and feelings. More specifically, that a “good” meditation session is one in which no thoughts or feelings arise. This is a mistake.

What is life? Life is what we experience. What do we experience? Thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Why try to get rid of two thirds of our life? People who have no thoughts are stupid. People who have no feelings are Vulcans.

Emotions and thoughts are not the problem, it is patterns, or rather the unthinking following of patterns, that is the problem. When you learn to experience emotions and thoughts AS emotions and thoughts, rather than getting lost in the illusory world they project — that is freedom.

At some point the meditator begins to identify that a great deal of suffering seems to come from our thoughts and feelings rather than from an external “reality”. This is a start, but we need to look deeper. How does suffering arise? Is it a “thing” that is somehow attached to certain thoughts and feelings? If not, then where does it come from?