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Jewish Meditation Retreat

An article in the San Diego Jewish Journal about attending a week-long silent meditation retreat. In the following excerpt the writer describes the clarity of observation during a walk outside:

On this walk, I noticed things I usually would have missed. I heard how a brook sounds different when you listen to its melody upstream vs. downstream. I watched how snow really falls: what seems like only a few flakes observed horizontally is a load of white when you look up into the sky. I became quiet enough to hear an animal bustling in the spongy snow covered ground. Finally, I figured out that snow was more air than water. It took an enormous amount to quench my thirst.

This was far more than a lovely stroll. I actually experienced what seemed like a merging with the quiet and serenity of wintertime. To say this memory is one of my most vivid is an understatement. It ranks in intensity and depth with the birth of my son.

October 28, 2006 | Meditation | Permalink



Jewish Meditation Retreat

An article in the San Diego Jewish Journal about attending a week-long silent meditation retreat. In the following excerpt the writer describes the clarity of observation during a walk outside:

On this walk, I noticed things I usually would have missed. I heard how a brook sounds different when you listen to its melody upstream vs. downstream. I watched how snow really falls: what seems like only a few flakes observed horizontally is a load of white when you look up into the sky. I became quiet enough to hear an animal bustling in the spongy snow covered ground. Finally, I figured out that snow was more air than water. It took an enormous amount to quench my thirst.

This was far more than a lovely stroll. I actually experienced what seemed like a merging with the quiet and serenity of wintertime. To say this memory is one of my most vivid is an understatement. It ranks in intensity and depth with the birth of my son.

October 28, 2006 | Meditation | Permalink



Veterans Try Meditation to Heal Trauma

L.A. City Beat reports on war veterans who are trying meditation as a means of recovering from combat trauma:

“I’m having to deal with the reality that I saw a lot of bad things. I’m having a tough time dealing with the civilian casualties,” says Stinzo, 31.

“I feel like Americans, although they seem to be informed by the news, it’s not a reality to them. I feel like most of these people in America feel like it’s watching a movie, and when the movie ends, you leave and you’re back at your normal life,” he adds. “I don’t want to tell people I’m an Iraq veteran, because immediately I’m bombarded with questions, especially the question of having to kill somebody. It’s very frustrating, and it makes me very angry inside.”

September 16, 2006 | Meditation | Permalink



Veterans Try Meditation to Heal Trauma

L.A. City Beat reports on war veterans who are trying meditation as a means of recovering from combat trauma:

“I’m having to deal with the reality that I saw a lot of bad things. I’m having a tough time dealing with the civilian casualties,” says Stinzo, 31.

“I feel like Americans, although they seem to be informed by the news, it’s not a reality to them. I feel like most of these people in America feel like it’s watching a movie, and when the movie ends, you leave and you’re back at your normal life,” he adds. “I don’t want to tell people I’m an Iraq veteran, because immediately I’m bombarded with questions, especially the question of having to kill somebody. It’s very frustrating, and it makes me very angry inside.”

September 16, 2006 | Meditation | Permalink



A Meditation Retreat at Springwater Center

While visiting the east coast in August for a wedding, I attended a week-long silent retreat at Springwater Center. I'd worked and volunteered for a year at Springwater a few years ago. While I'd lived in New York City subsequently — only an hour's plane ride away — I'd only been back once since. So it was wonderful to see the place and the people again.

Silent retreats at a Springwater are a remarkable thing. First, there's what's missing — cell phones, deadlines, commutes — and all the other stresses of everyday life. Second, there's nothing added. All other meditation centers that I'm aware of adhere to a particular religious or spiritual system. As its brochure notes, "Springwater is without rituals, ceremonies, or beliefs of any kind." That open, quiet space fosters an awareness of this present moment, which we're so often overlooking when absorbed in thoughts about the past, the future, and ourselves.

Toni Packer led the retreat. At age 78 she's less physically mobile, but her talks were as crisp and clear as ever. Packer directs four retreats a year and participates in others as a fellow retreatant. Four others in attendance — Wayne Coger, Stew Glick, Sandra Gonzalez, and Richard Witteman — also lead retreats at Springwater and elsewhere in North America during the year.

Here's an excerpt from Michael Atkinson's preface to Packer's book "The Wonder of Presence." Atkinson, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, gives an in-depth description of what a retreat is actually like at Springwater. It's a lengthy excerpt, but an informative one:

Leaving the two-lane highway that leads away from the tiny village of Springwater, a dirt road takes you past a sprinkling of houses, turns into the woods. and winds its way toward the center itself. Fifty yards from a gravel parking lot partly sheltered by the surrounding woodlands, high on the hillside, is a large, modern, wooden building, with great glass windows looking south. Entering a reception area, where racks hold shoes and invite you to leave yours, you find someone from the staff there to greet you. Neatly printed white sheets of paper on a bulletin board give you your room number and job for the retreat, and you find your way to the room and roommate with whom you will spend the next week, stow away gear, make your bed, and return to the main floor of the building to connect with old friends or to meet with new faces, an activity that continues through a serve-yourself dinner of soup and bread at five o'clock. As the conversations continue, most are mindful of the silence that will ensue after the orientation at seven.
The coordinators of the retreat, who are not given any special standing, explain safety procedures and the general mechanics of retreat. Schedules are posted in a number of places, and one is never in doubt about what will be offered next. But here, all activities except work period are optional. You may come to the talks or not, attend sitting periods or go for a walk or take a much needed nap. No credit is given for being on one's cushion early or staying late. And if you need to communicate — and this is the only binding rule other than doing your work assignments — do it with the pencils and pads of paper that are available everywhere throughout the center.

The whole retreat will take place in silence that is broken only by Toni's talks and in meetings. First the mouth, then (with luck) the mind, may give up the compulsion to chatter. Perhaps in the silence some of that automatic functioning can come into question, can be seen through, even set aside, in the course of a deeper looking.

At first the silence may seem inconvenient, but in time it becomes the solid and flexible basis of the retreat experience. As the interactions that habitually confirm our self-images drop away, the ease and simplicity of moving through the day quietly gives a hint that life might be more like this all the time — not with total silence, certainly, but without that foam of language that forms on what could be the clear water of our actions. When words are exchanged, they could count for something, could be heard as well as spoken.

In the meditation hall that first night, we settle onto our cushions or chairs and enter what Toni has called the work of this moment, being aware of all that is going on within and around us — the sound of the wind, the touch of the air currents within the room, the coming and going of our own breathing, and of our thoughts and impulses — just being fully present to whatever arises....

Toni is notorious in the spiritual community for her refusal to instruct people in techniques of meditation. Individuals attending the retreat may count their breaths or recite a mantra to themselves, but that is strictly their own doing (and in no way forbidden or even discouraged, really). Eventually, one comes to the point of trying the simple "awaring" that Toni speaks of so often and so passionately, allowing the mind free of technique to see, to hear, to be with what is going on. Others may call this a version of shikan taza, or maha ati, or dzogchen, but Toni declines to align this clear seeing with any tradition or technique — in fact, she seeks to free it from all traditional assumptions, inviting us to just see, just listen, not with the eyes or ears only but with all our being.

A small bell sounds, and twenty-five minutes of meditation are followed by seven minutes of informal, unstylized walking meditation at a gently ambling pace. Here again, there is complete freedom. Those who want to walk more slowly or quickly, or get some of the tea always supplied in several varieties, or go to the bathroom, or stretch, or leave the meditation area altogether, peel out of and reenter the walking line, which wends its way through the room until that small bell invites those who wish to return to their places and begin sitting again.

So, through several rounds, goes the first evening, ending with snacks set out in the kitchen for those who want them. Then sleep.

A bell at 5:30 the next morning summons most to wakefulness, and a silent cluster coalesces and dissolves around the various pots of tea waiting, steamy, downstairs in the dining hall. At six, sitting and walking begins again, and after the morning meditation, a hearty breakfast of cooked grains and fruit, followed by a silent work period. In a single hour, virtually all the work that needs to be done at the center is accomplished in silence. Food is chopped, soup made, dishes washed, floors swept, the entire spick-and-span ambiance made even cleaner. And then this silent flurry, which itself becomes quite focusing over time, subsides into an hour in which one can rest, read, or take a walk. At ten the meditation begins again, and after the first round of sitting and walking, it is time for Toni to speak.

Sitting in a place of no special prominence, eyes closed, she names the day, takes a moment of silence, and begins. Her voice is a little deep — as seems to befit this tall, vibrantly alive, white-haired woman in her early seventies — and it is full of passion and wonder, quietly urgent. Often, she speaks first of the land on which we are sitting — the rustle of the wind, bird sounds, the faint roar of a plane overhead, the warmth of the sunlight streaming through the many windows, the buzz of flies in summer, drip of rain, the sound of winter's icy branches knocking against one another. The sense of nature's presence is never far from the surface, even as the talk works its way through other concerns. In mid-sentence Toni may echo the caw of a bird from the nearby woods: no division between reflection and nature, the topic at hand and the great world in which it arises.

The first day's talk almost always centers on listening, which is in a way the start and finish of Toni's work. Can we come to listening freshly, whether or not we've ever worked in this way before, whether these retreats are a new experience or a way of life for us? Can we listen in such a way that we inquire along with Toni, not listening to her as an authority, but letting her listening awaken our own? Are we agreeing, going along hoping for the best, looking for a secret, willing to accept doubtful things in order to achieve some special state? Or are we genuinely asking, sentence by sentence, "How is it with me? Is this true of me? How am I responding at this moment?" Can we attend not only to what the mind hears but also to the hearing itself, and to how the whole bodymind responds throughout its network of nerves and muscles, ideas and memories? Can we truly listen?

When Toni speaks, the language she uses is the stuff of ordinary English, but one begins to notice little alterations here and there — how infrequently the personal pronouns get used, how "aware' has metamorphosed from adjective to verb, as when Toni speaks of awaring the moment in all its richness, and that awaring is seen as more primary than the individual in whom it is happening. Such language is not a repeating machine but a vehicle for discovery.

Silences often punctuate the talks, and after a time there comes a silence followed by the words, "We will end here for today." But it is only the talk that is ended. The listening goes forward into the rich silence of the day's unfolding. More sitting and walking, lunch of soup and bread and fruit, abundant, a walk across the meadows or through the woodland paths that surround the center, a pause to sit and listen to the waters of the cascade or watch the clouds reflected in the pond's surface, now wrinkled, now clear. A chance to exercise and then return to the sitting room for more sitting quietly, doing nothing. Dinner, another walk perhaps, and as the angled light of sunset gives way to twilight, then darkness, the evening's rhythm of sitting and walking is again under way in the meditation hall....

There is no drive to produce an enlightenment experience, no attempt to produce any experience at all, but instead a cultivation of deep listening, deep looking into the situations in which we find ourselves, and into the very quality of looking and listening. For the very act of looking openly without preconception, without boundary, is itself an expression of the awakened mind. And this clarity is there to be found, not once and for all in some definitive crossing of a boundary, but "for moments at a time," as Toni likes to say.

Neither long nor short, those moments are not to be measured in time. The grip of time itself seems to loosen as we settle into listening openly, into seeing without knowing, as one of Toni's early book titles put it. The silence becomes vibrant — itself a kind of listening — no longer a background. And the emergence from it of bird sound and plane hum, of the crunch of gravel underfoot and the grain of Toni's voice, only seem to affirm that sound and silence are one in this listening, are facets of one presence, as are those in whom the listening takes place.

On the last day, instead of speaking in her own words, Toni reads — typically from the writing of Zen master Huang Po, from Krishnamurti, from the poet Mary Oliver and others, not claiming some traditional sanction but exploring the reverberations of listening in the minds and writings of others. Retreatants too begin to shift gears, as they turn back toward the world of speech and interaction that awaits them at retreat's end. What can be taken from retreat back into daily life? The alertness of listening? The openness of a mind that is not always racing — or an openness to that mind? Since none of these is actually "produced," none can be carried forward or left behind. But for almost everyone something shifts, and we leave more awake, a little wiser, knowing less than when we came.

The listening that emerges while sitting quietly doing nothing is not confined to retreats. It is possible in the midst of a city as well as on a rural hillside, and it is certainly possible while reading this book. The talks gathered in these pages speak from and of that spaciousness, which can be found in our daily living. Reading and hearing these words, we can listen openly, inquire deeply, each step of the way asking, "How is it with me?" For it is our very nature, the most fundamental level of our being that speaks and listens here.

September 4, 2006 | Meditation | Permalink



A Meditation Retreat at Springwater Center

While visiting the east coast in August for a wedding, I attended a week-long silent retreat at Springwater Center. I'd worked and volunteered for a year at Springwater a few years ago. While I'd lived in New York City subsequently — only an hour's plane ride away — I'd only been back once since. So it was wonderful to see the place and the people again.

Silent retreats at a Springwater are a remarkable thing. First, there's what's missing — cell phones, deadlines, commutes — and all the other stresses of everyday life. Second, there's nothing added. All other meditation centers that I'm aware of adhere to a particular religious or spiritual system. As its brochure notes, "Springwater is without rituals, ceremonies, or beliefs of any kind." That open, quiet space fosters an awareness of this present moment, which we're so often overlooking when absorbed in thoughts about the past, the future, and ourselves.

Toni Packer led the retreat. At age 78 she's less physically mobile, but her talks were as crisp and clear as ever. Packer directs four retreats a year and participates in others as a fellow retreatant. Four others in attendance — Wayne Coger, Stew Glick, Sandra Gonzalez, and Richard Witteman — also lead retreats at Springwater and elsewhere in North America during the year.

Here's an excerpt from Michael Atkinson's preface to Packer's book "The Wonder of Presence." Atkinson, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, gives an in-depth description of what a retreat is actually like at Springwater. It's a lengthy excerpt, but an informative one:

Leaving the two-lane highway that leads away from the tiny village of Springwater, a dirt road takes you past a sprinkling of houses, turns into the woods. and winds its way toward the center itself. Fifty yards from a gravel parking lot partly sheltered by the surrounding woodlands, high on the hillside, is a large, modern, wooden building, with great glass windows looking south. Entering a reception area, where racks hold shoes and invite you to leave yours, you find someone from the staff there to greet you. Neatly printed white sheets of paper on a bulletin board give you your room number and job for the retreat, and you find your way to the room and roommate with whom you will spend the next week, stow away gear, make your bed, and return to the main floor of the building to connect with old friends or to meet with new faces, an activity that continues through a serve-yourself dinner of soup and bread at five o'clock. As the conversations continue, most are mindful of the silence that will ensue after the orientation at seven.
The coordinators of the retreat, who are not given any special standing, explain safety procedures and the general mechanics of retreat. Schedules are posted in a number of places, and one is never in doubt about what will be offered next. But here, all activities except work period are optional. You may come to the talks or not, attend sitting periods or go for a walk or take a much needed nap. No credit is given for being on one's cushion early or staying late. And if you need to communicate — and this is the only binding rule other than doing your work assignments — do it with the pencils and pads of paper that are available everywhere throughout the center.

The whole retreat will take place in silence that is broken only by Toni's talks and in meetings. First the mouth, then (with luck) the mind, may give up the compulsion to chatter. Perhaps in the silence some of that automatic functioning can come into question, can be seen through, even set aside, in the course of a deeper looking.

At first the silence may seem inconvenient, but in time it becomes the solid and flexible basis of the retreat experience. As the interactions that habitually confirm our self-images drop away, the ease and simplicity of moving through the day quietly gives a hint that life might be more like this all the time — not with total silence, certainly, but without that foam of language that forms on what could be the clear water of our actions. When words are exchanged, they could count for something, could be heard as well as spoken.

In the meditation hall that first night, we settle onto our cushions or chairs and enter what Toni has called the work of this moment, being aware of all that is going on within and around us — the sound of the wind, the touch of the air currents within the room, the coming and going of our own breathing, and of our thoughts and impulses — just being fully present to whatever arises....

Toni is notorious in the spiritual community for her refusal to instruct people in techniques of meditation. Individuals attending the retreat may count their breaths or recite a mantra to themselves, but that is strictly their own doing (and in no way forbidden or even discouraged, really). Eventually, one comes to the point of trying the simple "awaring" that Toni speaks of so often and so passionately, allowing the mind free of technique to see, to hear, to be with what is going on. Others may call this a version of shikan taza, or maha ati, or dzogchen, but Toni declines to align this clear seeing with any tradition or technique — in fact, she seeks to free it from all traditional assumptions, inviting us to just see, just listen, not with the eyes or ears only but with all our being.

A small bell sounds, and twenty-five minutes of meditation are followed by seven minutes of informal, unstylized walking meditation at a gently ambling pace. Here again, there is complete freedom. Those who want to walk more slowly or quickly, or get some of the tea always supplied in several varieties, or go to the bathroom, or stretch, or leave the meditation area altogether, peel out of and reenter the walking line, which wends its way through the room until that small bell invites those who wish to return to their places and begin sitting again.

So, through several rounds, goes the first evening, ending with snacks set out in the kitchen for those who want them. Then sleep.

A bell at 5:30 the next morning summons most to wakefulness, and a silent cluster coalesces and dissolves around the various pots of tea waiting, steamy, downstairs in the dining hall. At six, sitting and walking begins again, and after the morning meditation, a hearty breakfast of cooked grains and fruit, followed by a silent work period. In a single hour, virtually all the work that needs to be done at the center is accomplished in silence. Food is chopped, soup made, dishes washed, floors swept, the entire spick-and-span ambiance made even cleaner. And then this silent flurry, which itself becomes quite focusing over time, subsides into an hour in which one can rest, read, or take a walk. At ten the meditation begins again, and after the first round of sitting and walking, it is time for Toni to speak.

Sitting in a place of no special prominence, eyes closed, she names the day, takes a moment of silence, and begins. Her voice is a little deep — as seems to befit this tall, vibrantly alive, white-haired woman in her early seventies — and it is full of passion and wonder, quietly urgent. Often, she speaks first of the land on which we are sitting — the rustle of the wind, bird sounds, the faint roar of a plane overhead, the warmth of the sunlight streaming through the many windows, the buzz of flies in summer, drip of rain, the sound of winter's icy branches knocking against one another. The sense of nature's presence is never far from the surface, even as the talk works its way through other concerns. In mid-sentence Toni may echo the caw of a bird from the nearby woods: no division between reflection and nature, the topic at hand and the great world in which it arises.

The first day's talk almost always centers on listening, which is in a way the start and finish of Toni's work. Can we come to listening freshly, whether or not we've ever worked in this way before, whether these retreats are a new experience or a way of life for us? Can we listen in such a way that we inquire along with Toni, not listening to her as an authority, but letting her listening awaken our own? Are we agreeing, going along hoping for the best, looking for a secret, willing to accept doubtful things in order to achieve some special state? Or are we genuinely asking, sentence by sentence, "How is it with me? Is this true of me? How am I responding at this moment?" Can we attend not only to what the mind hears but also to the hearing itself, and to how the whole bodymind responds throughout its network of nerves and muscles, ideas and memories? Can we truly listen?

When Toni speaks, the language she uses is the stuff of ordinary English, but one begins to notice little alterations here and there — how infrequently the personal pronouns get used, how "aware' has metamorphosed from adjective to verb, as when Toni speaks of awaring the moment in all its richness, and that awaring is seen as more primary than the individual in whom it is happening. Such language is not a repeating machine but a vehicle for discovery.

Silences often punctuate the talks, and after a time there comes a silence followed by the words, "We will end here for today." But it is only the talk that is ended. The listening goes forward into the rich silence of the day's unfolding. More sitting and walking, lunch of soup and bread and fruit, abundant, a walk across the meadows or through the woodland paths that surround the center, a pause to sit and listen to the waters of the cascade or watch the clouds reflected in the pond's surface, now wrinkled, now clear. A chance to exercise and then return to the sitting room for more sitting quietly, doing nothing. Dinner, another walk perhaps, and as the angled light of sunset gives way to twilight, then darkness, the evening's rhythm of sitting and walking is again under way in the meditation hall....

There is no drive to produce an enlightenment experience, no attempt to produce any experience at all, but instead a cultivation of deep listening, deep looking into the situations in which we find ourselves, and into the very quality of looking and listening. For the very act of looking openly without preconception, without boundary, is itself an expression of the awakened mind. And this clarity is there to be found, not once and for all in some definitive crossing of a boundary, but "for moments at a time," as Toni likes to say.

Neither long nor short, those moments are not to be measured in time. The grip of time itself seems to loosen as we settle into listening openly, into seeing without knowing, as one of Toni's early book titles put it. The silence becomes vibrant — itself a kind of listening — no longer a background. And the emergence from it of bird sound and plane hum, of the crunch of gravel underfoot and the grain of Toni's voice, only seem to affirm that sound and silence are one in this listening, are facets of one presence, as are those in whom the listening takes place.

On the last day, instead of speaking in her own words, Toni reads — typically from the writing of Zen master Huang Po, from Krishnamurti, from the poet Mary Oliver and others, not claiming some traditional sanction but exploring the reverberations of listening in the minds and writings of others. Retreatants too begin to shift gears, as they turn back toward the world of speech and interaction that awaits them at retreat's end. What can be taken from retreat back into daily life? The alertness of listening? The openness of a mind that is not always racing — or an openness to that mind? Since none of these is actually "produced," none can be carried forward or left behind. But for almost everyone something shifts, and we leave more awake, a little wiser, knowing less than when we came.

The listening that emerges while sitting quietly doing nothing is not confined to retreats. It is possible in the midst of a city as well as on a rural hillside, and it is certainly possible while reading this book. The talks gathered in these pages speak from and of that spaciousness, which can be found in our daily living. Reading and hearing these words, we can listen openly, inquire deeply, each step of the way asking, "How is it with me?" For it is our very nature, the most fundamental level of our being that speaks and listens here.

September 4, 2006 | Meditation | Permalink



Joseph Goldstein Interview

Paper Frog links to a Slate.com video interview with Joseph Goldstein, who has been teaching at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts for many years. Robert Wright, the interviewer, who obviously has an interest in meditation, isn't afraid to ask the probing, naive, or self-interested questions. It's a good watch, particularly if you're new to meditation, or have questions and concerns about it. While Goldstein's approach has a Buddhist flavor to it, the interview contains a lot of insights.

Here's one exchange I like, as taken from a transcript of the interview, in which Goldstein elaborates on the difference between detachment and non-attachment:

Joseph Goldstein: ...This could be clarified by the distinction of two words which often get confused. You know often people understand in Buddhism that there's a great value on detachment and that sounds a little grey. You know just to be detached from everything.

Robert Wright: Right.

JG: That's not what the teaching is about. The teaching is about non-attachment. Detachment implies a sense of withdrawal.

RW: Withdrawal from?

JG: From whatever.

RW: Including joy, including...

JG: Anything!

RW: Right.

JG: It's like a pulling away from. Non-attachment doesn't imply withdrawal it simply implies not holding on. So that's a very different experience, it's a very different mind-set. That's really what we're practicing.

Technical note, watching the interview on a Mac, I was only successful using the Real Player option.

June 26, 2006 | Meditation | Permalink



Krishnamurti Summer Study Program

The Krishnamurti Foundation of America is accepting applications for a month-long summer program for college and post-graduate students. The course will take place from July 1-28, 2006 in Ojai, California. Here are some further details:

The Krishnamurti Foundation of America is pleased to announce our second Krishnamurti Summer Study Program for college and post-graduate college students. This is an exciting four week in-depth program that will introduce the life-changing teachings of J. Krishnamurti.

The goal of this program is to help students to discover for themselves a new perceptual understanding of life based on fresh insights and self-knowledge gained directly through dialogue.

We have structured the Krishnamurti Summer Study Program as a traditional college course to enable students to apply for college credit from their own particular colleges, if they wish. The program begins July 1 and runs through July 28, 2006.

Each day students enter into penetrating dialogues; we watch videos of Krishnamurti in dialogue with many serious explorers of the mind, and we read from selected writings. In addition the group takes hikes into the beautiful valleys and mountain trails that surround Ojai and visits the lovely beaches of Santa Barbara.

The cost of the entire program is $1300 which includes all meals, a room in Besant House on Oak Grove School's campus, all books and other materials, and all transportation within Ojai.

If you know any students that might be interested in this unique program, please tell them about it. For more detailed information, and for application guidelines, please go to the KFA web site:

http://www.kfa.org/student.php

I like what Mark Lee, the executive director of the KFA, has to say about the program:

Show me where you can penetrate into the mystery that is yourself, without the benefit of a gimmick, a device, a method, or some step-by-step program that claims to make it easier? Many courses are available to help improve you, promising empowerment, transcendental energy, rejuvenation, and all manner of remediation for the body and mind. However the truth is we really don’t know how to “see” ourselves, or how to get to know who we are directly. This points to one of the qualities of what Krishnamurti talked about, direct perception of who we are, without the interference of experts, or authorities.

June 3, 2006 | Meditation | Permalink



Can Anybody Meditate?

"Can anybody meditate?" is the title of a chapter from Jon Kabat-Zinn's deservedly bestselling book "Wherever You, There You Are." It's a good question to ask, as many people think they don't have the temperament for meditation, have tried it briefly only to give up, or simply see it as an esoteric discipline without application to their lives. It's unfortunate, because meditation is a simple way for everyone to access life fully and deeply. Here's the rest of Kabat-Zinn's chapter:

I get asked this question a lot. I suspect people ask because they think that probably everybody else can meditate but they can't. They want to be reassured that they are not alone, that there are at least some other people they can identify with, those hapless souls who were born incapable of meditating. But it isn't so simple.

Thinking you are unable to meditate is a little like thinking you are unable to breathe, or to concentrate or relax. Pretty much everybody can breathe easily. And under the right circumstances, pretty much anybody can concentrate, anybody can relax.

People often confuse meditation with relaxation or some other special state that you have to get to or feel. When once or twice you try and you don't get anywhere or you didn't feel anything special, then you think you are one of those people who can't do it.

But, meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It's about feeling the way you feel. It's not about making the mind empty or still, although stillness does deepen in meditation and can be cultivated systematically. Above all, meditation is about letting the mind be as it is and knowing something about how it is in this moment. It's not about getting somewhere else, but about allowing yourself to be where you already are. If you don't understand this, you will think you are constitutionally unable to meditate. But that's just more thinking, and in this case, incorrect thinking at that.

True, meditation does require energy and a commitment to stick with it. But then, wouldn't it be more accurate to say, "I wont stick with it," rather than, "I can't do it?" Anybody can sit down and watch their breath or watch their mind. And you don't have to be sitting. You could do it walking, standing, lying down, standing on one leg, running, or taking a bath. But to stay at it for even five minutes requires intentionality. To make it part of your life requires some discipline. So when people say they can't meditate, what they really mean is they won't make time for it, or that when they try, they don't like what happens. It isn't what they are looking for or hoping for. It doesn't fulfill their expectations. So maybe they should try again, this time letting go of their expectations and just watching.

April 21, 2006 | Meditation | Permalink



Tibetan Perspectives

Wired reports on the Dalai Lama's meeting with scientists at the Mind and Life Institute conference in Washington D.C. in November. This part caught my attention:

While Western researchers are exploring the effects of meditation on physical health, Alan Wallace, a leading Tibetan scholar and one of the Dalai Lama's translators, pointed out that when faced with physical ailments, Tibetans traditionally turned to doctors or healers, not to meditation. The purpose of meditation, added the Dalai Lama, is not to cure physical ailments, but to free people from emotional suffering.

While meditation has recently been gaining attention in the media as a result of medical research proclaiming its health benefits, it's good to have a reminder that meditation goes beyond stress relief. In the act of being aware, deeper forces are at work. Awareness grounds us in what we can call reality, life here and now, rather than in mental abstraction.

A Voice of America article on the Dalai Lama's visit to D.C. includes this excerpt:

Mind and Life Institute chairman Adam Engle compared meditation to exercise, saying a healthy mind is as important as a healthy body. "So, in the same way that you've got a myriad of physical exercises to help your body, there are a myriad of mental trainings. And this is not well known. Most people, when they think about meditation, they think about turning your body into a pretzel and zoning out somewhere," he said. "But it is really just a word for mental training."

Meditation is often presented as a form of mental training in which the mind applies its focus on an object (the breath, a sound, a mantra, a visualized image). On this site we would like to offer an alternate view of meditation as a kind of mental un-training. Instead of focusing the mind on an object, the mind can be left to rest as it is. Paltrul Rinpoche (1808-1887), a Tibetan meditation teacher, describes this poetically:

All you practitioners, male and female, who wish to realize the faultless and correct point of view, should let your mind rest fully awake in a state of unfabricated emptiness. When your mind is quiet, then rest in that quietness without trying to fabricate anything. When it doesn't think, then rest in that non-thinking. In short, no matter what takes place, let your mind rest without fabricating anything.

Don't try to correct, suppress or cultivate anything.

Don't try to place your mind inwardly. Don't search for an object to meditate upon outwardly. Rest in the meditator, mind itself, without fabricating anything.

One doesn't find one's mind by searching for it. The mind itself is empty from the beginning. You don't need to search for it. It is the searcher himself. Rest undistractedly in the
searcher himself.

"Have I now grasped that which should be observed?" "Is this the right way or not?" "Is this it or not?" No matter what takes place rest in the thinker himself without fabricating anything.

No matter what kind of thoughts occur, excellent or terrible, good or bad, joyful or sorrowful, don't accept or reject, but rest in the thinker himself without fabricating anything.

I recently watched the documentary "Wheel of Time" by the indefatigable German director Werner Herzog. The film depicts the pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Tibetan Buddhists to the spot in Bodhgaya, India, where Siddhartha Gotama, more commonly known as the Buddha, was said to be enlightened. A side trip in the film covers the occasionally perilous journey of thousands of Tibetans to circumnambulate Mount Kailash, which is regarded as holy. In Bodhgaya the Dalai Lama leads the assembled monks and laity for several days in a ceremony called the Kalachakra initiation. The Dalai Lama is interviewed briefly for the film, and is his usual genial, insightful self. However, the Bodhgaya gathering itself appeared to be steeped in the rituals, tradition, and hierarchy of religion. The display evoked a spiritual striving that seemed at odds with Paltrul Rinpoche's words that, "One doesn't find one's mind by searching for it."

December 6, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Krishnamurti Newsletter

The Krishnamurti Information Network publishes an excellent free newsletter which is available online and by email subscription. Prior months' issues are also archived online, while future issues will appear every two months. Each issue begins with a "Question of the Month" — reprinting a dialogue between J. Krishnamurti and a questioner — followed by an exceptional editorial piece that questions an aspect of life in relation to Krishnamurti's work. Here is an excerpt of the editorial from the current Sep/Oct 2005 newsletter:

To Krishnamurti, the key to understanding the complex relationship between fear, dependence and security lies in the fact that we irresistibly gravitate towards permanency. However, nothing in and around us stays the same; all the elements in our psyche, even our particular desires themselves, undergo change or die out altogether. Permanency is nowhere to be found. Krishnamurti suggests that in the search for a reliable source of gratification, we invent the "self" and imbue it with a sense of continuity in order to ensure that gratification can be re-lived, the pleasure repeated. Against the ever-changing backdrop of our ideas, feelings and opinions, the self appears as the most "real" and constant aspect of our psyche - all while being, paradoxically, altogether intangible.

Just as the physical body is localized by its shape and outline, in the psychological sphere preferences, emotions, motives and ideas give definition to the self. The self relies on acknowledgement from its environment in order to reinforce its validity. Entire social conventions and rituals - for example, birthdays, marriage announcements, national celebrations - have been created and are being vitalized in response to this shared requirement, this common need to "place" the self in the world. We feel attracted to individuals who reinforce our self-image and shy away from others who doubt or oppose who we think we are. In either case, the fact that the "I" feels - pain or pleasure - proves that the "I" exist.

Anything that threatens the gratification of this self-image sparks the emotion we know as fear. Fear, in our experience, is tied to the anticipated loss of that which we hold dear, of that on which our security depends. However, our experience is also that time heals all wounds. Nothing that we put together for our security is irreplaceable, even complete identities can be changed. Certainly, it takes time and energy to radically "re-frame" our lives, but the survival and adjustment mechanisms of thought are infinitely inventive and resourceful.

Krishnamurti relates the source of fear not to the loss of any particular dependence or attachment, but to the inherent insufficiency of the self, to an awareness of a deep-rooted emptiness. All the “adornments and the renunciations that the self assumes can never cover its inward poverty”. As such the self can never be without fear; its very fabric or texture is anxiety as it tries to block out the truth of its non-existence. The root of this anxiety then is not the fear of death per se – the ultimate loss of all identifications – but stems from the underlying perception that we are already dead or, rather more precisely, that we have no substantial existence outside of thought. To Krishnamurti complete security can only be found in coming to terms with the fact that we are nothing. That is, nothing in the sense of "not a thing created by thought”.

October 19, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Reader Feedback on TM

Reader Mikko Ahonen emailed from Finland in response to the recent entry on Transcendental Meditation. He gave relevant feedback based on his personal experience with TM, and I have included his message below.

You have touched on an important and controversial topic. I participated in the TM basic course here in Finland 5 years ago. Learning the meditation technique was the good thing. However, there was already then something really strange going on in the TM movement (World Government, etc.) and I decided not to participate in the extended course. What made me sad is that there was no critical public discussion within the TM movement, all messages from gurus were taken as a given. At least to me this is a sign of a very closed religious community :-( The mantra system in TM is based on some Sanskrit words which are seen by some scholars as variant names of Hindu gods. These mantras are provided to the student by the TM teacher in a private tutoring session and the mantras are selected with a pretty simple system based on age and sex of the meditation student. On the Internet (e.g. Freedom of Mind Center) and in many analytic books covering meditation movements there is this list of TM mantras available. (Please, make your own search, during my TM basic course I had to make a promise that I will not reveal my mantra!). When I later heard that the mantra I was given may be a Hindu god name variant, I felt a bit odd. Joke: In Finnish language this mantra given to me does not mean anything imaginable and I don't know much about Indian belief systems, so hopefully there is no harm done to my head ;-)

Talking about TM in schools: I very much encourage teaching meditation in schools but I find TM meditation very unsuitable in its present form. Group meditation is a great experience and at school it could remove anxiety and stress. At least in Finnish schools children between 12-18 years are very closed and separated mentally from each other. In that sense meditation could help them to be more open, creative, and enable them to smile :-) However, meditation has such a bad reputation especially among some praying, religious people that they are afraid of it. (Some people just don't get it that in meditation you do not pray or beg anything ;-) So, let's hope there will be a truly independent meditation technique on the way to schools and workplaces. Could it be based on ideas of Jiddu Krishnamurti or some other positively critical thinkers?

Take care,

Mikko A.
Innovation, Creativity and Learning Researcher
Beyond Creativity

P.S. Thank you for this fantastic blog, Meditation. It has given me so many insights. Please, allow people to comment on blog entries more easily :-)

Mikko also requested that comments be allowed on blog entries. By way of explanation, I haven't included a comment section on the blog due to concerns about the tenor of the discussion. I've noticed that internet message boards about meditation, ironically, attract posters who are more interested in opinionated assertions than constructive dialogue. However, emails are always welcome, and I thank you for reading.

September 5, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Transcendental Meditation (TM)

In a recent interview with Newsweek, the film director David Lynch talked about his plans to raise $7 billion for his new foundation — the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education. Lynch has been a dedicated practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (TM) since the 1970s. The foundation's purpose is to make instruction in TM available to schoolchildren across the United States. Lynch believes that the biggest problem facing children is stress, and that TM is the ideal antidote. While Lynch's intentions seem noble, TM and its parent organization have a controversial reputation. The Journal News article "Meditation Controversy" gives an overview of the TM movement, its efforts to introduce TM into schools, and presents the viewpoints of the organization's critics and supporters.

TM was trademarked as a meditation technique under the auspices of the Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corporation. The corporation's name is derived from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who founded TM in the 1950s and remains the head of the organization. Here is a list of the corporation's trademarks, as taken from the TM website, which gives an indication of the organization's expansive activities:

® Transcendental Meditation, TM, TM-Sidhi, Maharishi Ayur-Veda, Maharishi Ayurveda, Science of Creative Intelligence, Maharishi, Maharishi Sthapatya Veda, Maharishi Global Construction, Maharishi Yoga, Maharishi Yagya, Maharishi Vedic Astrology, Maharishi Jyotish, Maharishi Gandharva Veda, Maharishi Vedic Approach to Health, Maharishi Vedic Vibration Technology, Maharishi Instant Relief, Instant Relief, Maharishi Rejuvenation, Maharishi Rasayana Program, Maharishi Vedic Management, Maharishi Corporate Development Program, Consciousness-Based, Maharishi Vedic University, Maharishi Vedic School, Maharishi Vedic Center, Maharishi Ayur-Veda School, Maharishi Ayur-Veda University, Maharishi Ayur-Veda College, Maharishi Ayur-Veda Foundation, Maharishi Ayur-Veda Medical Center, Maharishi University of Management, Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, Maharishi Medical Center, Maharishi Vedic Medical Center, Maharishi Medical College, Maharishi Vedic, Maharishi Vedic Medicine, Maharishi Vedic Psychology, Maharishi Self-Pulse, Maharishi Heaven on Earth, Maharishi Center for Excellence in Management, Maharishi Vedic Management, Maharishi Master Management, Natural Law Based Management, Maharishi Corporate Revitalization Program, Maharishi Global Administration through Natural Law, Maharishi Vedic Development Fund, Thousand-Headed Purusha, Maharishi Thousand-Headed Purusha, Maharishi Purusha, Purusha, Thousand-Headed Mother Divine, Mother Divine, Ideal Girls' School, 24 Hour Bliss, Spiritual University of America, Breath of Serenity, Maharishi Amrit Kalash, Maharishi College of Vedic Medicine, Vedic Science, Maharishi Vedic Science, Maharishi Vedic Observatory, Vastu Vidya, Maharishi Vastu, Time Zone Capital, Council of Supreme Intelligence, Prevention Wing of the Military, are registered or common law trademarks licensed to Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corporation and used under sublicense.

Other than describing it as a "simple, natural, effortless, easily learned technique," the TM website gives no specific detail on the technique itself. The site states, "The Transcendental Meditation technique must be learned personally from a certified teacher of the Transcendental Meditation program. The technique cannot be learned from a book, video or audio tape." The initial course of instruction, which comprises four 1-2 hour sessions, costs $2500. Subsequent courses in "advanced techniques" are charged at the same rate.

The TM movement has numerous critics, some of whom are former students and teachers of TM. These critics have made detailed information on the organization and the technique available online. Trancenet offers a comprehensive overview of TM, including statements by prominent former members of the movement. Meditation Information Network describes itself as "supporting critical examination of Transcendental Meditation and the programs associated with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi." Falling Down the TM Rabbit Hole is maintained by Joe Kellett, a former TM teacher, whose purpose is to explain "How Transcendental Meditation really works, a critical opinion." Each of these sites reveal the TM technique itself — the repetition of a mantra derived from the Hindu tradition. These critics argue that despite TM's claim to be non-religious and non-sectarian, the TM movement is based in a belief-system and religiously motivated.

August 17, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Meditation Is Observation

How do we understand meditation? The word is used in a variety of ways and can signify different things. To explain what we mean by meditation, let's try some different words.

To put it simply, one can say that meditation is observation. So what happens when we observe? In observation, the mind has shifted from thinking to awareness. When thinking is predominant, attention is absorbed internally within a stream of thoughts. Thought is a limited, material construct—a representation of reality. In awareness, attention is open, covalent with a changing, unfixed reality—the breeze on the skin, the sunlight reflecting on concrete, the pen in the hand.

Observation, or awareness, is the release of thinking. Thought is mental effort, tension. For example, in the shift from thinking to observation, we can notice the muscular tension in the face relaxing. Observation is a relaxed alertness that requires no effort. We may ask, "How do we switch from thinking to awareness?" There is no method, such a question comes from thought itself. As does the question, "How can I maintain this awareness permanently?" Observation can't be produced by thought, it is present when thinking is released.

In her book, "The Work of This Moment," Toni Packer has some eloquent words on the subject:

Sitting quietly, doing nothing, not knowing what is next and not concerned with what was or what may be next, a new mind is operating that is not connected with the conditioned past and yet perceives and understands the whole mechanism of conditioning. It is the unmasking of the self that is nothing but masks—images, memories of past experiences, fears, hopes, and the ceaseless demand to be something or become somebody. This new mind that is no-mind is free of duality—there is no doer in it and nothing to be done.

The moment duality ceases, energy that has been tied up in conflict and division begins to function wholly, intelligently, caringly. The moment self-centeredness takes over the mind, energy is blocked and diverted in fearing and wanting; one is isolated in one's pleasures, pain, and sorrow. The moment this process is completely revealed in the light of impartial awareness, energy gathers and flows freely, undividedly, all-embracingly.

Awareness, insight, enlightenment, wholeness—whatever words one pay pick to label what cannot be caught in words—is not the effect of a cause. Activity does not destroy it and sitting does not create it. It isn't a product of anything—no technique, method, environment, tradition, posture, activity, or nonactivity can create it. It is there, uncreated, freely functioning in wisdom and love, when self-centered conditioning is clearly revealed in all its grossness and subtleness and defused in the light of understanding.

[The Work of This Moment, p.61.]

April 11, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



The Complete Krishnamurti

In the mail yesterday, I received most of the The Collected Works of J. Krishnamurti (1933-1967) (the complete set is out-of-print), which I ordered from the Krishnamurti Foundation in California. The collection compiles Krishnamurti's talks (as recorded by tape or shorthand) over a forty-five year period. Each talk is followed by questions from the audience on a comprehensive variety of topics. For those with a serious interest in meditation, or more broadly, are challenged by Socrates' dictum to "Know thyself," Krishnamurti's writings form an invaluable record.

Each volume of the collection contains a brief preface about Krishnamurti. As Krishnamurti himself often said, what is important is not the person, but the words. However, it's interesting to see how Krishnamurti is presented biographically. The challenge is to balance the personal details while expressing the content of Krishnamurti's concerns. The preface in this collection does an admirable job of it:

Jiddu Krishnamurti was born in 1895 of Brahmin parents in south India. At the age of fourteen he was proclaimed the coming World Teacher by Annie Besant, then president of the Theosophical Society, an international organization that emphasized the unity of world religions. Mrs. Besant adopted the boy and took him to England, where he was educated and prepared for his coming role. In 1911, a new worldwide organization was formed with Krishnamurti as its head, solely to prepare its members for his advent as World Teacher. In 1929, after many years of questioning himself and the destiny imposed on him, Krishnamurti disbanded this organization, saying:

Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be forced to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. My only concern is to set men absolutely, unconditionally free.

Until the end of his life at the age of ninety, Krishnamurti traveled the world speaking as a private person. The rejection of all spiritual and psychological authority, including his own, is a fundamental theme. A major concern is the social structure and how it conditions the individual. The emphasis in his talks and writings is on the psychological barriers that prevent clarity of perception. In the mirror of relationship, each one of us can come to understand the content of his own consciousness, which is common to all humanity. We can do this, not analytically, but directly in a manner that Krishnamurti describes at length. In observing this content we discover within ourselves the division of the observer and what is observed. He points out that this division, which prevents direct perception, is the root of human conflict.

His central vision did not waver after 1929, but Krishnamurti strove for the rest of his life to make his language even more simple and clear. There is a development in his exposition. From year to year he used new terms and new approaches to his subject, with different nuances.

Because his subject is all-embracing, the Collected Works are of compelling interest. Within his talks in any one year, Krishnamurti was not able to cover the whole range of his vision, but broad applications of particular themes are found throughout these volumes. In them he lays the foundation of many of the concepts used in later years.

The Collected Works contain Krishnamurti's previously published talks, discussions, answers to specific questions, and writings for the years 1933 through 1967. They are an authentic record of his teachings, taken from transcripts of verbatim shorthand reports and tape recordings.

Of course, by concluding in 1967, this collection doesn't cover the entirety of Krishnamurti's output—he continued speaking until his death in 1986. A more ambitious project is in the works. The Krishnamurti foundations in the U.S., England, and India, have begun work on the Complete Teachings Project, which will comprise the full body of his work from 1933-1986. The Krishnamurti Foundation of America's Fall 2004 newsletter (PDF File) describes the project:

As you may know, the scope of this project is enormous, encompassing Krishnamurti's public talks, dialogues and question-and-answer meetings, small group discussions, radio and television interviews, seminars, educational material, dialogues with individuals, notes, statements, and poems. In addition, books written or dictated directly by Krishnamurti will be included in their complete published version. The full title for the project is The Complete Teachings of J. Krishnamurti 1933 to 1986. It requires the collaboration of the Krishnamurti Foundation Trust in England, and the Krishnamurti Foundations in America and India. Mark Lee, of the Krishnamurti Foundation of America, is the project director. The purpose of the Complete Teachings Project is to provide an authentic historical record of Krishnamurti's teachings, for preservation and dissemination. It will be distributed free to interested libraries and universities throughout the world, either in book (75 volumes of 500 pages each) or CD format.

Related

Some talks included in The Collected Works of J. Krishnamurti are archived online at jkrishnamurti.org

Selected scanned chapters of Krishnamurti's books, including some from each volume of The Collected Works

March 30, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Children Questioning Krishnamurti

One of my favorite books by J. Krishnamurti is "Think on These Things", first published in 1964. Krishnamurti often spoke of the importance of education and helped found schools in India, England, and the U.S. In "Think on These Things," Indian schoolchildren ask Krishnamurti questions. Coming from children, the questions have a simplicity and directness. They are not afraid to ask questions that an adult might overlook. Krishnamurti responds with seriousness and care, never talking down to the children. Here are some of the questions they ask:

Why do men fight?
What is jealousy?
Why am I never satisfied with anything?
What is shyness?
Why do we want to be famous?
What is happiness in life?
Sir, why do we want to have a companion?
For the sake of what we love to do should we forget our duty to our parents?
Why are we naughty?
What makes us fear death?
What is the difference between you and me?
Why did the British come to rule India?
Is man only mind and brain, or something more than this?

Of course, these questions have as much relevance to the old as the young. Here is Krishnamurti's response to the question "Why are we interested in asking questions?"

Very simple: because one is curious. Don't you want to know how to play cricket or football, or how to fly a kite? The moment you stop asking questions you are already dead—which is generally what has happened to older people. They have ceased to inquire because their minds are burdened with information, with what others have said; they have accepted and are fixed in tradition. As long as you ask questions you are breaking through, but the moment you begin to accept, you are psychologically dead. So right through life don't accept a thing, but inquire, investigate. Then you will find that your mind is really something quite extraordinary, it has no end, and to such a mind there is no death.

March 21, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Ainslie Meares on Meditation

Ainslie Meares (1910-1986), an unorthodox Australian psychiatrist, placed meditation at the center of his therapeutic treatment. Meares believed that meditation was most effective when pared to its essence, as simple stillness, rather than as a meditative technique.

The biographical note from his book "Life Without Stress" reads:

He worked for thirty years as a psychiatrist and used meditation extensively in the treatment of psychoneurotic and psychosomatic illnesses. In 1976 in the Medical Journal of Australia, he first reported on the regression of cancer following intensive meditation. This step away from orthodox medicine's cancer regime of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery, brought him into direct conflict with the medical profession. However, in 1981 the Lancet published his findings on regression in the absence of any orthodox treatment and eventually his meditative techniques became accepted by the medical profession as a whole, with the exception of the oncologists. Dr. Meares was the author of thirty books on both technical and popular aspects of psychiatry...

In "Life Without Stress," Meares dissects the nature and causes of stress, then prescribes meditation as the antidote. Here, I'll liberally excerpt from the book's chapter on meditation, which gives an overview of his pragmatic approach:

The key to our management of stress lies in those moments when our brain runs quietly in a way that restores harmony of function.... First, there are many different forms of meditation in which the brain functions in quite different ways. I have abundant evidence to show that the form of meditation which I am about to describe is much more effective than other forms in restoring the harmonious brain function that relieves stress.

In classical meditation as in yoga, in Zen Buddhist meditation, and in the meditation as practised by the early Christian mystics, the thought processes of the mind are helped by will power concentrating on some object or spiritual concept. The mind is active, striving to attain and maintain this ideal. In the meditation that I would advise you to practise there is no striving, no activity of brain function, just quietness, a stillness of effortless tranquility.

This is not the tranquility of drowsy somnolence. The mind is clear but still. At first, until the meditator has learned the art of letting his mind run in this way, there will be moments of stillness, but these are soon interrupted by the intrusion of thoughts. Do not try to dispel the thoughts by actively driving them from the mind. Just let them be and they will fizzle out, cease, and stillness will come again. Then thoughts will recur. And again, if they are let alone, the stillness that we want, will become longer and longer.

At the start this process will come and go, very much like the natural rhythms that are all about us, night and day, the tides, our very heartbeat. There may be a tendency for the beginner to get cross with himself with the recurring thoughts. This, of course, brings the meditative process to a halt.

Another error, which may befall the beginner, is a tendency to examine the situation. 'How am I going? Am I doing it properly?' Of course, any enquiry of this nature involves activity of the mind, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid. At the start it is best just to let ourselves experience a sense of being. Just being. Not even being in the room. Not even being alive. Just being. This state of mental activity, or rather inactivity, is a step towards the real stillness of mind experienced in full meditation.... We are seeking a form of relaxation which arises in the brain itself....

In classical meditation the meditator is taught to be constantly aware of his breathing. The breath goes in and out, in and out. The awareness of it means that there is continuing activity of the mind. which means that this process produces a type of meditation quite different from that which I advocate. There is another point. The awareness of our breathing gives the mind something to do, and so reduces the intrusion of thoughts. This makes meditation easier. So those learning to meditate easily fall into the habit of stilling their thoughts in this way. But if we are meditating with awareness of our breathing, our brain never achieves the quiet stillness which is so effective in restoring harmonious function and so relieving stress....

These same principles apply to the technique of visualization.... The main problem that leads people into visualizing is that the inexperienced see it as something practical as opposed to the rather mystical idea of stillness. Visualization is an easy technique as it gives the meditator something to do. This overcomes the initial difficulty of the meditator learning to let his mind run in stillness, but it leads to an inferior type of meditation.

It does not require long periods of meditation to obtain relief from stress. Ten minutes twice a day has produced dramatic relief in some hundreds of people who have consulted me professionally....

As we learn to meditate in this way, it soon becomes a pleasant experience. It is something to which we look forward. This comes with the ease that there is about it. There is no making ourselves relax, no making ourselves meditate. It is all very simple and natural. That is why we soon come to like doing it. Then we come to feel less stressed, and our motivation for our meditation is further increased.

Besides, there are many fringe benefits! The effects of successful meditation flow into our everyday life. Although we may initially have been meditating to control stress or some psychosomatic illness, there are many side-effects, and they are all positive, and all good. They include inner peace, better interpersonal relationships, clearer thinking, increased work capacity - even tycoons agree on this, better sexual relationships due to less tension, absence of disturbing dreams, and smoother physical reactions often shown in better performance in sport.

One of the patients Meares successfully treated for agoraphobia, Pauline McKinnon, went on to become a therapist. Like Meares, she employs meditation as the core of her treatment, calling it Stillness Meditation. Here's an excerpt from an article on McKinnon from the Australian newspaper The Age:

McKinnon says her technique is no technique - no mantra to forget, no breathing rhythms to fumble. After eight years of high anxiety, McKinnon discovered the "stillness" meditation devised by renowned Australian psychiatrist Dr Ainslie Meares 20 years ago. It worked for her and now she's keen to spread the word, through her book, In Stillness Conquer Fear, and her classes - McKinnon even teaches squirmy primary school children to chill.

Related

Ainslie Meares' books are out-of-print but can be ordered from Alibris

Pauline McKinnon's book "In Stillness Conquer Fear" at Amazon.com

Pauline McKinnon is quoted in an article on dealing with stress

Previously

Martin Lefevre on meditation

Toni Packer on meditation

J. Krishnamurti on meditation

March 16, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Martin Lefevre on Meditation (Redux)

I recently discovered Martin LeFevre on the New Zealand web site Scoop. Lefevre writes regular columns on meditation (and politics,) and makes a point of differentiating technique-based meditation from simple, unconstructed awareness. His views complement those of Toni Packer and J. Krishnamurti, as discussed in the last two entries.

The biographical note below his Scoop articles reads:

Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years.

Some autobiographical information on his interest in meditation can be drawn from his letter to the editor in an issue of The Link, a quarterly publication discussing Krishnamurti's work.

If you are familiar with Krishnamurti's work you will notice a similarity in the way Lefevre expresses himself. For example, when Lefevre speaks of meditation his descriptions are grounded in references to nature—a motif common in Krishnamurti and Packer's writings:

Obviously, it takes goals, planning, and effort to farm the land or build a house. But goals and effort have no place in spiritual life. Indeed, they are antithetical to inner growth.

New Age or old school techniques of meditation still require intentionality—that is, effort and will. And so they perpetuate division and conflict. But true meditation dissolves the duality between the thought and the thinker, and so dissolves at its source the divisiveness that is destroying humanity.

To awaken observation in which there is no observer, just the action of observing, is a difficult art, but I am sure anyone can do it if they question and experiment within themselves. And when enough people begin to end egoistic activity through right observation, a revolution in human consciousness will ignite.

A cold wind bites into the skin as I ride my bike into the country on winter day in California's Central Valley. A mound of snow shimmers in the distance, beyond the foothills that are beginning to green.

Arriving at the little creek at the edge of town, I find that the recent rains have turned it into a small torrent. A short distance away a great sycamore sweeps upward, its white bark gleaming. The trunk bifurcates, forming an exquisitely symmetrical shape. Black and white magpies squawk from its bare, upper branches.

Under the cobalt sky, meditation comes gently, imperceptibly, and as always, unexpectedly.

[Excerpted from "Dissolving the Roots of Division."]

Related: Articles on meditation by Martin Lefevre at Scoop

Authentic Dialogue is the Music of Meaning (3/9/05)

Is Group Meditation an Oxymoron? (3/4/05)

A Balanced Life (12/22/04)

Awareness is Immortal (12/2/04)

Looking Without a Center (12/17/04)

The True Fountain of Youth (11/4/04)

The World Turned Upside Down (9/8/04)

The Crisis of Consciousness (8/18/04)

Bringing Meditation Home (7/22/04)

Unmediated Perception (6/2/04)

B-52 Breakthrough (5/21/04)

Cosmology and Consciousness (2/20/04)

Sacred Canyon and Native Peoples (1/27/04)

Dissolving the Roots of Division (1/15/04)

Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (11/23/03)

Continuity Leads to Deadness (11/7/03)

Take the Time to End Time (9/26/03)

Religions are Irreligious (9/22/03)

Revolution (9/15/03)

A Meditation on Death (9/8/03)

Viagra and the Art of Meditation (8/27/03)

Previously

Martin Lefevre on meditation

Toni Packer on meditation

Krishnamurti on meditation

March 11, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Toni Packer on Meditation

Continuing on the theme of the previous two entries — exploring a meditation free of methods — we'll now take a look at what Toni Packer has to say.

Toni Packer was born in Germany in 1927, escaped to Switzerland with her family amidst the post-war turmoil in 1945, where she met her American husband before moving to the United States. She initially encountered meditation at the Rochester Zen Center in the 1960s. A quick study, she was slated to take over the main teaching responsibilities from the retiring teacher, Philip Kapleau, one of the first Americans to study meditation in Japan. In the midst of this process, her doubts about the formal, institutionalized meditation of the zen center coalesced when she encountered J. Krishnamurti's writings. She left the zen center and with friends founded the Springwater Center, a non-sectarian meditation and retreat center in the Western New York countryside. She continues holding retreats there to this day.

While not so widely known, Toni Packer is perhaps the most direct American meditation teacher living today. On the subject of meditation and meditative techniques she writes (as adapted from a talk):

Being concentrated is not the same as being here, present, and clearly aware. We can practice concentration for years and become highly focused, even perform feats that seem miraculous. But does it help in understanding who we truly are, clearly, directly, beyond the shadow of a doubt? It is hard to put into words, but when this is clear, it is clear. It is not the product of concentration or imagination. I am not knocking concentration. It has its useful function in daily life, in arts, sciences, sports. In the kitchen, if I'm not concentrating, the food will burn. Acrobats need enormous concentration to stay on the highwire, and so do bookkeepers to avoid making mistakes.

It is possible to control the mind with practices like concentrating on the breath, a mantra, a mandala, a spot on the forehead or below the navel. This is concentrating by cutting off distractions. And what do we get in that process? Don't we get a concentrator, either a good or bad one? The effort that comes from the thought of getting someplace or being something reinforces, in subtle ways, the sense of me. It reinforces the me as having to do something, being somebody, attaining something, or still lacking something. These are all ideas and images, deeply programmed and constantly reinforced in the human mind....

Here in the work of this moment we are not trying to mold ourselves to a preconceived path or "stages." Teachings that postulate stages grab the thinking mind. We wonder what these stages are like, and trying to figure them out is an exercise in headaches. Of course the main interest is, "What stage am I in? How many more will I have to go through?"

Can we drop the idea of stages and not pick it up again, even though it is prevalent in many traditions? Can we see and feel that any such conceptualization is already a straightjacket? Thought is so powerful — thinking what I am now, what I will be next, judging myself about what I think I am and what I could be. The power of such thoughts cannot be overestimated. They prevent a presence, an awareness that defies all definition.

We may think that effort is the source of awareness, but in presently awaring this thinking, there is no effort. It's just happening. Listen — rain is gently dropping on the roof, hitting the window panes, breath is flowing, crows are calling. We hear it clearly, don't we? Any effort?

[The Wonder of Presence, pp. 19-22.]

Related

Toni Packer's books at Amazon.com

Web site for the Springwater Center, where Toni Packer leads meditation retreats

Interview with Toni Packer as reprinted from Tricycle magazine

Yoga Journal article on Toni Packer

Shambhala Sun article on Toni Packer

Reprint of a chapter from Toni Packer's book "The Wonder of Presence" in the Shambhala Sun

Reprint of a chapter from Toni Packer's book "The Wonder of Presence" on Beliefnet

Previously

Toni Packer on the sense of self

March 7, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Krishnamurti on Meditation

In our last entry we took a critical look at meditation techniques and methods. Now, let's hear from those who advocate that meditation be free of such systemization. Perhaps the two most eloquent voices on this subject are J. Krishnamurti and Toni Packer. We'll first take a look at Krishnamurti.

Jiddu Krishnamurti was born in India in 1895. He was schooled in India and Britain, and moved to the United States in the 1920s, where he remained based until his death in 1986. As a child he had been groomed by a quasi-religious organization, the Theosophical Society, to carry the mantle as their prophesied "World Teacher." In 1929, he rejected the annointed position, disbanded the organization that had been prepared for him, and famously declared that "Truth is a pathless land." For the next sixty years, he traveled internationally giving thousands of talks on the problems of living from the perspective of a meditative mind. Krishnamurti was adamantly independent of any organization, critical of traditional approaches to meditation, and encouraged listeners to learn by observing their own lives. He published numerous books, and regularly engaged in dialogue with artists, scientists, philosophers, religious figures, and politicians. While he achieved a certain amount of recognition in his lifetime, he remains greatly under-appreciated. Krishnamurti's books are widely available and highly recommended.

Here's a passage in which he discusses meditation in relation to meditation techniques:

There are various schools, in India and further East, where they teach methods of meditation — it is really most appalling. It means training the mind mechanically; it therefore ceases to be free and does not understand the problem.

So when we use the word "meditation" we do not mean something that is practiced. We have no method. Meditation means awareness: to be aware of what you are doing, what you are thinking, what you are feeling, aware without any choice, to observe, to learn. Meditation is to be aware of one's conditioning, how one is conditioned by the society in which one lives, in which one has been brought up, by the religious propaganda — aware without any choice, without distortion, without wishing it were different. Out of this awareness comes attention, the capacity to be completely attentive. Then there is freedom to see things as they actually are, without distortion. The mind becomes unconfused, clear, sensitive. Such meditation brings about a quality of mind that is completely silent — of which quality one can go on talking, but it will have no meaning unless it exists.

[Meditations, p.80.]

Related

Krishnamurti's books at Amazon.com

Krishnamurti Foundation Trust

Krishnamurti Foundation of America

Krishnamurti Foundation of India

The Teachings of J. Krishnamurti

Krishnamurti Information Network

The Link — a quarterly publication discussing Krishnamurti's work

Oak Grove School — K-12 school in the U.S. founded by Krishnamurti

Brockwood Park School — school in the UK founded by Krishnamurti

Wikipedia Encyclopedia entry on Krishnamurti

Previously

Krishnamurti on meditation techniques

Krishnamurti on stillness

March 4, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Meditation Techniques

Meditation is usually taught as a technique or method. Examples of techniques are visualization, mental repetition of a word, or concentration on the breath. The common element among such methods is the concentration of the mind on an object — an image, a word, the breath. By concentrating on an object, distractions are eliminated and the mind is made quiet.

In such technique-based meditation the mind is used to quieten the mind. But if it takes mental activity in the form of directed concentration to achieve and maintain this quiet, is the mind really still? Let's look at this more closely. A common meditation technique is to concentrate on or "follow" the breath. According to this method, we focus on the sensations of the breath as it enters and exits the nose. Inevitably we become distracted by a train of thought. Upon noticing our distraction, as instructed, we return our attention to the breath. The repetition of this process is the meditation practice itself.

J. Krishnamurti takes issue with such an approach, making the case that technique-based forms of meditation are just a form of concentration, and not authentic meditation:

Is meditation something you practise? Is meditation something that somebody says, 'Meditate and you will get this' — whether it is transcendental meditation or the meditation of a particular system, and so on, the Zen meditation and all that. A system, a practice, a goal, an end to be achieved. Right? This is what you call meditation. And to achieve that end you follow a system of daily practice. You know what happens when you practise something over and over and over again? You become mechanical, your mind becomes dull, insensitive...

So we think meditation is a process by which we can attain understanding, enlightenment, something beyond man's thought. This is generally what we mean by meditation. Right? Have you practised meditation, any of you? No? You have. What for? And you have practised it, learning to control thought. Right? And you have never gone into the question: who is the controller. Right? Who is the controller that is controlling thought? Is the controller different from the controlled? Or the controller is the controlled? You are following all this? So first you divide the controller and the controlled. Right? First you divide it, and the controller then controls, tries to hold thought in a particular direction. But the thought that wanders off, is that different from the entity that is trying to control that particular thought that is going off? Have you understood my question? Are they not both the same? Which is, thought.

So meditation is to understand the proper place, or where thought belongs. You have understood? Without control. Have you ever tried to live a daily life without a single control? You haven't. And when you go into this problem of meditation, you have to understand why man has developed this sense of controlling everything, controlling his thoughts, his desires, his pursuits — why? And that is called — part of it — concentration. Right? You know what happens when you concentrate? You are building a wall of resistance. Aren't you? Within which you say, I must concentrate on that, and therefore push everything else aside. Which is to exercise will, to hold thought in a particular direction. And will is the expression, the essence of desire. And in concentration there is conflict going on. Your thought wanders off, all over the place, and you bring it back. Keep up this game. So you have never asked why thought should be controlled at all. The mind chatters endlessly. And to find out what part, or the right place for thought, not controlling thought, it's right place. You are following all this? Then if you have an insight, if you see where thought belongs then there is no problem of control of thought.

And as there has been no system, no practice, no control of thought, then you have to find out what it means to be attentive. What does it mean to attend? You see attention means, if you have gone into it very deeply, as we are going into it, if we can, attention implies an observation without the centre. You have understood? The centre as the 'me', as my desire, my fulfilment, my anxiety, when you are attending, which means giving your nerves, your eyes, your ears, everything you have, that total energy, in that attention there is no centre as 'me'. You see that? Now, just experiment with what is being said. Are you attending now? That is, are you listening completely? Listen which means not interpreting, not translating, not trying to understand what he is saying, but the act of total listening. If you are, there is only that sense of hearing without a single movement of thought.

[Excerpted from a public talk on April 20, 1975.]

Concentrative practices may affect the mind and have a utilitarian function, but they remain within the realm of mental conditioning. Such practices are different from the non-divided meditation of which Krishnamurti, among others, speaks.

As we noted, the approach to meditation that is based in techniques is widespread. Whether in books about meditation or at a meditation center, it's the form most commonly presented. So who are the advocates of a meditation free of methods? We'll discuss this question in our next entry.

March 1, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Meditation and Thought

In our daily life we usually live amidst a constant stream of thought. We are rapt in thoughts of the past and future, thoughts of ourselves and others.

In meditation the momentum of busy activity settles into stillness. The body and mind are relieved and relax. This happens naturally and without effort. In this letting go the stream of thought gives way to simple awareness: the feeling of the body against the floor, the sounds from the room and the street, the tension in the facial muscles, thoughts arising and passing away.

Meditation is a laboratory for becoming familiar with ourselves. It is an opportunity to observe ourselves in simplicity, going beyond the surface narrative of the thinking mind.

In "Think on These Things," J. Krishnamurti discusses meditation with a group of school children:

You know what space is. There is space in this room. The distance between here and your hostel, between the bridge and your home, between this bank of the river and the other — all that is space. Now, is there also space in your mind? Or is it so crowded that there is no space in it at all? If your mind has space, then in that space there is silence — and from that silence everything else comes, for then you can listen, you can pay attention without resistance. That is why it is very important to have space in the mind. If the mind is not overcrowded, not ceaselessly occupied, then it can listen to that dog barking, to the sound of a train crossing the distant bridge, and also be fully aware of what is being said by a person talking here. Then the mind is a living thing, it is not dead.

February 20, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Returning to the Source

In a recent issue of Kyoto Journal, a well-regarded English-language publication based in Kyoto, William Stimson writes of his experience at a meditation retreat in upstate New York.

While Stimson has been meditating for twenty years, he has a discomfort for the trappings of institutionalized meditation. When his wife and a student in his meditation group sign up for a three-day retreat at a Catskills meditation center he used to visit, he ends up joining them. During the retreat, he comes to several realizations. At first he is inspired by the architectural windows of the meditation hall:

It struck me, seated there on the cushion in meditation, that I was also a window. The light would flow in to the extent the window was clean. The only thing I could do from this side was to keep that window clean.... I immediately saw that cleaning the window entailed relaxing the body, stilling the mind. Keeping the window clean was surprisingly difficult. A thought arose. I saw that thought as dirt. "It's getting in the way of the light," I told myself. The moment I did so, the thought vanished.

He continued these efforts over the course of the next day, until realizing:

Then, in a flash, it occurred to me that this idea of the window that I was imposing upon myself was only another thought. It too had to fall away.... I knew at that moment, the body had to be left alone. Not tampered with. The mind, the same. I had no idea what would happen. I began doing this. This wasn't the window anymore; this was beyond the window. This was no window. Immediately I found myself seated there in the most blissful peace — mind and body totally stilled.


Later in the retreat, Stimson re-experiences strong memories and feelings from times past. He reflects on and reappraises the thwarted hopes of his younger self for an education and career in botany. Hopes which were nurtured by the desire to recapture his experience of innocence and simplicity as a child in Cuba.

In my youth I'd tried to go to Harvard and study under Dr. Schultes as a way of getting back to the earlier magic of Cuba that the Communists had deprived me of. I had tried to use one illusion to chase after another. It never could have worked. I felt life had defeated me and left me behind — only to discover now, during these three days of seated meditation, that it had led me by the nose straight to the real source of what I'd always been trying to find.

January 31, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Martin LeFevre on Meditation

I hadn't heard of Martin LeFevre until last night, when I came across several of his articles at the New Zealand web site Scoop. A biographical note describes him as "a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher." In his writing, LeFevre comprehends and conveys the essence of meditation. Here's an excerpt from his article "A New Theory of Human Nature, Pt. 2":

Humans are creatures of words and images, and mediate experience through symbols. In the meditative state however, words fall silent and symbols fall away. In complete awareness, the brain is simply still and awake, and thought assumes its rightful place.

That is to say, when the brain becomes deeply aware of and attentive to the movement of thought, undivided observation acts on thought, halting it. The entire cognitive apparatus in the brain falls silent, and remembering, associating, and even recognizing cease. One sees anew, and there is a restoration of innocence in the 'immaculate perception,' which is deeply regenerative to the brain and body.

In awareness, thought can become still, but not because of any effort to silence thought. Notice that any intention to still thought is a product of thought itself. The meditative state is not a goal to be achieved, but is simply the brain resting in an open and aware wholeness.

January 28, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



Gaming Meditation

Two weeks ago, Doug Brien, kicker for the New York Jets, made a crucial field goal in overtime to win a playoff game for his team. Acclaim followed, along with the New York Times article, "Thinking Man's Kicker Tries Not To," about Brien's approach to the game:

As the big moment neared and Doug Brien was called upon to kick the game-winning field goal in overtime for the Jets last Saturday, he disappeared into his bubble.

With nearly 70,000 spectators roaring at the wild-card playoff game against San Diego, he walked to one end of the sideline as his teammates moved aside like the parting of the Red Sea. Standing alone, he began breathing deeply. His face went blank as he tried to empty every thought from his brain.

Suddenly, the objects and people in front of him became a blur. Then the deafening noise in the stadium cut out with the quickness of a snapped finger.

From then on, Brien cannot remember what happened. But millions of people who watched him can.

Brien walked onto the field and calmly and instinctually kicked two 28-yard field goals - the Chargers called a timeout before the first one - giving the Jets a 20-17 victory.

"I can't tell you anything about it because my mind was completely blank," Brien said. "Thinking is always a problem when you're a kicker. I know that makes me sound a little crazy, but it's true."... Every day, Brien wakes up at 6 a.m. and sits cross-legged on his bed. Then he closes his eyes, and for 45 minutes to an hour he meditates, trying to stop his brain from working. He is more than happy to explain how alpha and beta waves in your brain are flat when you are in "a zone" or meditating, but is sure to say that he is "not some guy from Berkeley who sits at home and burns incense."

Speaking as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, it's fortunate that meditation doesn't create the perfect kicker. The following week in Pittsburgh, Brien missed two game-winning field goals in the final minutes of game. The Steelers went on to win in overtime and end the Jets' playoff run; Brien was transformed from hero to goat in the press.

From the above article we get the impression that meditation is a form of concentration that consists of blanking the mind and blocking out the world. What's more, the writer describes Brien's goal as "trying to stop his brain from working."

It's fortunate that meditation doesn't stop the brain from working, as without a functioning brain we wouldn't be alive. The brain coordinates all activity in the body-mind from the "voluntary" to the autonomic. Had his brain been incapacitated, Brien wouldn't have been able to walk on the field, let alone kick a field goal.

As to the questions of how meditation relates to thinking, concentration, and whether it is a device to shut out the world, we'll continue the discussion in future entries. In the meantime, here are some words on the subject by J. Krishnamurti:

Meditation is not concentration, which is exclusion, a cutting off, a resistance, and so a conflict. A meditative mind can concentrate, which then is not an exclusion, a resistance, but a concentrated mind cannot meditate.

January 20, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink



When Time Stands Still

A refreshingly clear article on meditation by an unattributed author in The Times of India. The Times of India, incidentally, is the daily newspaper with the world's highest English-language circulation. An excerpt:

When we meditate, we do not allow our impulses and thoughts to translate into actions. We simply watch our thoughts. Looking at the thoughts, we realise that all these impulses arise in the mind. They have a life of their own. They arise even without conscious effort. By not reacting to impulses, we come to understand their nature.

January 19, 2005 | Meditation | Permalink