Orienting to stillness, orienting to motion

I started this blog to document meditating every day in 2010. My blog posts got kind of boring and I ended up broadening the topic, but before the year ended, I had made some big decisions, changing my approaches to work and home that resulted in living a more authentic, self-realizing life.

Selling my house and quitting my job with no clear path ahead were not changes I would have undertaken had not my meditation practice compelled me to make them for my own well-being and trust that the Universe and my own capabilities would come through. There was uncertainty along the way, and luck, but I figured I could always rent a room and do temp jobs to support myself, and that gave me courage. (I rented a room and did a few temp jobs on my path!)

However, I really wanted more than that for myself: I wanted to own an affordable, paid-for home in Austin, Texas, and I wanted to do work that I really loved. And I got those things.  Meditation helped me understand that not living authentically was no longer possible for me, and I’m happy with those decisions.

Since then I’ve divorced my meditation practice from any religion. I’ve occasionally slacked off for weeks at a time, and I’ve meditated irregularly and half-heartedly. I have not worked with another teacher.

Instead, I have groped my untutored way around stillness and silence, acutely aware of my vata monkey-mind, wondering if I have a touch of ADHD (other family members do), and occasionally stumbling upon states of pervasive bliss, being literally held by a higher power, being breathed, feeling currents moving in and through me, and experiencing brief moments of exquisite clarity. All with no idea how to return to any of those states. The birds ate my bread crumbs!

In August 2016, I discovered the Insight Timer app (iOS) for recording my meditation practice sessions, and my desire to meditate every day grew. As of today, I’ve meditated 188 consecutive days since September 26. You gotta love an app that gives you a gold star for meditating 10 days in a row.

In January, I had a breakthrough in a body/energy work practice, Biodynamics, that I’ve been studying for four years now that is mostly perception, and this also renewed my commitment to meditation, especially for doing longer sits of an hour when my schedule allows.

Feeling more committed, I signed up for a 10-day vipassana retreat in August, which is a good month to be away from work in an air-conditioned room, meditating my ass off with a bunch of Hindus and some other English-speaking people. Vipassana has been on my bucket list for years, and it’s finally going to happen.

So my love for meditation has been rekindled. Most mornings I wake up and can’t wait to meditate.

Out of this scenario, I feel like I have some things to say that might be helpful to new meditators and stalled meditators and meditators looking for inspiration. Because meditation is such a nonverbal realm, I’d like to make an attempt to put some words to it and make some suggestions that you can take or leave as you please.

We can’t notice everything at the same time. (Or at least not until/unless we are way advanced, as far as I know now.) This bird calling draws our attention, there’s the hum of the refrigerator, the faint smell of honeysuckle, the sensations of my feet being hot, the impulse to take my shoes and socks off. Pause. A chakra opens, a stuck place in my body makes itself known, oh should I have said that?, I can taste the cheese I ate earlier, that was a really satisfying breath, what’s for dinner?

We filter information about our experience in bits, and at the beginning of a session, it often changes quickly, like a slideshow on fast-forward. It would be overwhelming to experience all that simultaneously, not to mention hard to appreciate.

We can use our natural filtering capability to develop skills in orienting, which means setting a direction for what you intend to notice. It helps slow the monkey-mind slideshow down considerably.

Two ways of orienting that you may come to value are orienting toward stillness and orienting toward motion.

In orienting to stillness, notice the pauses between your inhalations and exhalations, and between your exhalations and inhalations. Notice the gaps between your thoughts. Notice your mind at rest. Nothing happening, nothing to see here, just…emptiness.

Ironically, in stillness, you may notice all kinds of subtler experiences, such as energy dancing across your face or even the beginning of a thought.

The other polarity is orienting to motion, such as your breath, which you’ve tuned into many times. Notice more about it. What moves in your body when you inhale and when you exhale? Do you feel a sense of with your inhalations? Do your exhalations help you y? Put your experiences into your own words if you can.

What about your heart, beating in your chest? Can you feel it pumping away, keeping you alive? You have pulses located all over your body. Can you sense them?

There’s a more subtle, slower rhythm, the rhythm of cerebrospinal fluid expanding your cranial bones ever so slightly and then receding, which you might even feel all the way down your spine. And there are even more subtle rhythms that are perceptible.

Stillness and motion are not opposites. There’s a bit of stillness in motion, and a bit of motion in stillness. Developing your perceptions of motion augments your perceptions of stillness, and vice versa.

Notice what you notice each time you meditate, and know that your next session will offer you new gifts of perception. Play with it!

I hope these suggestions inspire you to experience more deeply the human being that you are. May you have breakthroughs!

New findings on how meditation changes the brain

Peg Syverson, Zen priest and my meditation coach at the Appamada zendo, sent out an email with a link to a New York Times article on meditation, saying “We told you!”

The article, How Meditation May Change the Brain, is by a writer whose husband went on a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat. He came back so energized and enthusiastic that he vowed to meditate for two hours a day through the end of March.

She wrote:

He’s running an experiment to determine whether and how meditation actually improves the quality of his life.

Sound familiar, those of you who followed this blog last year???

The writer admits she’s a skeptic — and then cites studies and researchers on how meditation changes the brain. The latest research shows measurable changes in gray matter that affect memory, learning, anxiety, and stress in a group that meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks, compared to a control group not meditating that had no such changes.

Other studies have shown meditation increasing empathy and compassion.

What the writer believes is that through meditation, her husband became empathetic enough that he now takes out the trash and puts gas in the car because he knows she doesn’t like to do those chores.

She can go with that.

Oh, and here’s a link to the abstract of the findings about gray matter.