Meditation

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Cultivate Joy, It's Easy

According to Mattieu Ricard, The Art of Meditation:

  • A healthy mind should act like a mirror -- faces can be reflected in a glass but none of them stick. Use the same technique with thoughts -- let them pass through your mind but don't dwell.
  • It's impossible to stop thoughts from coming but focusing on a particular sound or the breath going in and out calms the mind, giving greater clarity. Controlling the mind is not about reducing your freedom, it's about not being a slave to your thoughts. Think of it as directing your mind like a boat rather than drifting.
  • Be mindful -- pay attention to the sensations of your breath going in and out. If you notice your mind wandering simply bring it back to focusing on your breath. This is known as mindfulness. You can apply it to other sensations to bring you into the 'now' rather than dwelling on the past or future. You could focus instead on heat, cold and sounds that you hear.

"Once you've achieved some skill in this you can use that to cultivate qualities such as kindness, or dealing with disturbing emotions. He says everyone has felt all-consuming love but usually it lasts for about 15 seconds, but you can hold on and nurture this vivid feeling by focusing on it in meditation. If you feel it becoming vague you can consciously revive it. "

And

"Like when playing the piano, practising the feeling for 20 minutes has a far greater impact over time than a few seconds. Regular practise is also needed like watering a plant."

"You can then use meditation to gain some space from negative emotions."  Ricard says: 'You can look at your experience like a fire that burns. If you are aware of anger you are not angry you are aware. Being aware of anxiety is not being anxious it is being aware.' By being aware of these emotions you are no longer adding fuel to their fire and they will burn down. 

  • You will see benefits in stress levels and general wellbeing as well as brain changes with regular practise in a month. Those who say they don't have enough time to meditate should look at the benefits: 'If it gives you the resources to deal with everything else during the other 23 hours and 30minutes, it seems a worthy way of spending 20 minutes,' Ricard says.
     
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2225634/Is-worlds-happiest-man-Brain-scans-reveal-French-monk-abnormally-large-capacity-joy-meditation.html#ixzz2Aw6GDVcE

 

Quotations from Matthieu Ricard. The Art of Meditation. appear in the above Daily Mail article of Nov. 1st, 2012.

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Meditation is an essential part of all forms of Buddhism, but you do not need to be a Buddhist to benefit from it.  It is not just an interval of peaceful relaxation in our hectic existence, but its purpose is to develop awareness, self-knowledge and eventually, Awakening (usually called Enlightenment.)  

Therefore, H. H. the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa teaches (Bodhgaya, Dec. 2001:) 

"We cannot simply learn and reflect and then leave out the meditation, because what it boils down to is that one needs to mix the dharma with one's own mind through meditation.  If that does not happen, then one has missed the point." 

~ Densal, Summer 2002.

Nevertheless, as Khenpo Karthar says: 

"Those who really examine their mind and consider what it is are extremely rare and for those who try, the search proves difficult," 

and since

"Mind has two faces, two facets, which are aspects of one reality. These are enlightenment and illusion."  

it will take some practice to recognize and then resolve the two.  HH Karmapa says (Music in the Sky) that, via the practice of meditation,

When we see that ultimately neither the object nor the subject exists, concepts cease. There is no basis for objects, whether ...  physical or mental. There are not characteristics to be apprehended and therefore there is nothing truly existent to be discovered. There are not thoughts that remember the past and none that fabricate the future. Resting evenly in this free expanse is that the mind's nature is practicing deep insight. When we continue in this state, looking at whatever arises to see its nature, we become accustomed to it and trust that it is true.

How do we continue our practice once we have finished a session? We hold the thought that whatever arises in our mind resembles an illusion in a movie:  although these phenomena are nonexistent, they appear; though they appear, they are nonexistent. If we see someone in a movie, that person is not really there, yet a person appears. 

Someone is appearing to our eyes, but, [do] we question if that is a real appearance? No, it's like an image from last night's dream. In this same way, 
all phenomena resemble an illusion. This is true because their nature is emptiness.  In sum, during this post-meditation phase, we train in recognizing the empty nature of these phenomena, seeing them as an illusion or an image from a film.

Read Flight of the Garuda by the great Shabkar.

Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche on meditation.

Khyabje Dudjom Lingpa on Meditation (July 1998, Tara Carreon's notes on Gyatrul Rinpoche as translated by Alan Wallace.)

Two Stages

As taught in the Tibetan tradition, meditation has two stages. The first is called in Sanskrit, shamata or in Tibetan, shinay.  Shiné or shinay means restful or relaxed or "tranquility meditation" -- "resting in naturalness,"  "calm abiding." 

The second is  vipashyana [Pali: vipassana] which is lhatong in Tibetan.  Lhatong is usually referred to as "Emptiness meditation,"  "insight meditation" or "analytical meditation."  Generally the first kind is learned before the student is taught the second. 

Progress in meditation is thought of as taming the mind.  

Buddhist meditation can be quite distinct from any activity by that name as found in other contexts.  Also, there are a wide variety of different approaches and techniques within Buddhism.  In some schools, the preparation, posture and correct technique are of primary importance.  In others, an unrestrained internal flow of thought is encouraged.

Group Meditation

There was surprise, even shock, when some Westerners were told that the shrine room is not an appropriate place for groups to meet to practice meditation. 

Traditional Tibetan Buddhism does not employ the custom of silent group meditation, either with or without a leader.  Consequently, when traditional Tibetan masters first come to the West and are asked to lead group meditations, many have no idea what the Western students are talking about.

Tibetans learn to meditate by having a teacher explain the instructions and then by practicing alone in their rooms. The teacher hardly ever meditates with the students, even at the beginning stages of the training. In contrast, most Westerners need someone to meditate with them at first, to help them overcome the confusion and barriers that may arise from engaging in a practice from a foreign culture. Thus, most Westerners inevitably begin to meditate in a group that is led by a teacher.

Many Westerners, however, lack the discipline to meditate on their own after learning the basics. Therefore, they find that continued group meditation, especially when led by a teacher, helps them to build beneficial habits. Whether the meditation is silent or involves group chanting of a ritual, they find it helpful for a teacher to sit in front each time, to describe the procedure at the beginning, and then to meditate with them throughout the session. 

Moreover, those bewildered by some of the more complex silent practices find guided meditation particularly useful. Using his or her own words, a teacher describes in stages the visualizations, understandings, and feelings that students are trying to generate. As they listen, the meditators try to imagine and feel these things while suspending any extraneous, independent thoughts. Habitual reliance, however, on any form of group meditation may sometimes lead to over dependence on these styles of practice and on the teachers who lead them. ~Alexander Berzin's Archive.

Meditation is not merely relaxation or sitting still, nor does it necessarily focus on the breath or on the repetition of a certain syllable or phrase.  Certainly, the rigorous Zen form of sitting [zazen] is not the only Buddhist meditation technique. Its ultimate objective is the same as that of any other Buddhist method.

Why Meditate?

For Buddhists, meditation works to end suffering.  We "sit" in order to solve the problem of suffering that is inherent in cyclical existence or samsara -- the first Truth. It is an essential principle of Buddhism that we are not be expected to accept the words of scripture (either as recorded in the sutras or in the oral tradition) without testing them. To do that, we have to examine our own natures before we can effect any change.

At first, we may begin to meditate in pursuit of personal goals -- to relax, to become less stressed out, or to cultivate "spirituality."  The world as we know it -- called in the language of philosophy the phenomenal world -- depends on our minds in order to exist.  What would the world be like with no receivers of impressions to process information, and with no minds to interpret those impressions?

There would be no sounds.  Vibration? Maybe.  But also, there would be neither noise, nor music nor language.  Similarly for the other sense impressions.  

Also there would be no concepts by which people, and other beings, organize the jumble of matter/energy radiation into what we perceive -- the world.

Once we learn to apprehend or grasp the world with our minds, how to "see" the world, we almost all learn the attitude, which is really not true, that this world causes things to happen to us.  We experience suffering partly because we have these attitudes. 

The world and the situation that inspires aversion or attraction is called samsara.  It is a projection of our confused mind with its habitual tendency to interpret according to culture, past experience and expectations.

So the first step is to calm the mind and make it stable. This will be a gradual process because the confusion itself did not arise all at once.  However, we are not trying to stop thoughts from arising altogether:

People with a misconception about meditation believe that all thoughts should cease. We cannot, in fact, establish ourselves in a state devoid of thoughts. The fruit of meditation is not the absence of thoughts, but the fact that thoughts cease to harm us. Once enemies, they become friends. 

~ Bokar Rinpoche (1940-2004)  Meditation: Advice To Beginners.

Most teachers, including the late Chogyam Trungpa (The Path is the Goal: A Basic Handbook of Buddhist Meditation,) say that the method is not as important as just doing it.  

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche says "Do your practice without hope and without fear."  That is, without concern for attainment or worry that you may not be achieving.

How to Meditate

The ideal position is the 7-point posture ("of Vairochana.")

  1. Sit with back erect:  ears, shoulders and hips in a straight line.
  2. Cross the legs and bend them at the knees. More flexible people can lift their feet and place them on the opposing thighs in the full lotus asana [pose.] When only one ankle is lifted (as above,) this is the vajra pose.  Sitting tailor-fashion is fine, too.
  3. The hands and fingers are placed in different ways according to the particular tradition.  The graphic shows the palms upwards, but that is not the only way. 

It is also possible to sit upright in a chair with your feet comfortably apart and planted firmly. (This is the posture of the Future Buddha Maitreya.)  All these positions afford stability for long periods of "sitting."  

You could meditate lying down (the water buffalo position) but that tends to lead to sleep which is not a desirable goal since we want to remain alert.

 4.  The eyes are open but downcast, focused about 4 hand-breadths away from the feet  (or lap, if you are on a chair.)   We live in the world and most of us cannot shut it out completely; we also can use the bit of visual stimulus to prevent drowsiness, and to assist with attention or mental focus.

  1. The tip of the tongue is lifted to rest behind the upper gums. This encourages proper breathing.
  2. Breathing is quieted until it is through the nose, slow and regular.
  3. The buttocks are contracted [tightened] then released, which helps relax the body. 

Now, watch your mind.  Let the thoughts arise spontaneously and let them go. See if you can catch a glimpse of the space between your thoughts.  

The lower body should be grounded, stable, "heavy," but the upper body should feel light, loose and relaxed.

The Kagyu Mahamudra tradition (see Thrangu Rinpoche's Oct. 2000) teaches that we should not worry about what comes up in our mind nor how fast or slow it seems to be working. 

Elephants, Oxen and Monkeys

It seems that the stiller the body, the more active the mind.  It may even behave in a highly erratic fashion.  It has been compared to a stubborn ox, a drunken monkey or an elephant in the state of masth

  • Kamalashila's (8th C.) Nine Stages of (shinay) Meditation that uses a focus:

    (1) inwardly placing the mind on the object 
    (2) extending the duration of the concentration 
    (3) replacing the mind on the object when it is distracted 
    (4) continuously restoring the focus of the mind 
    (5) achieving a state of inner control 
    (6) achieving a state of inner pacification 
    (7) achieving a state of complete inner pacification 
    (8) achieving single-pointed mind, and 
    (9) achieving mental equilibrium. 

     

  • As related to the taming of the wild elephant.

Gently or Firmly?

Generally, we find that the mind is full of neurotic, even obsessive, thoughts.  This is especially true if we have problems in our daily lives. Your mind and its memories may seem as if it is purposely trying to distract you from your goal. Songs and lyrics may intrude; all sorts of physical sensations tend to demand attention. (That's why it is a good idea to use the toilet before "sitting.") 

In the shamata [Tibetan: shinay ] tradition, we deal with very uncomfortable physical sensations by adjusting the body.  If you feel itchy, scratch; if a joint hurts too much, shift your position. If you need to cough, do so. Perhaps you can try gradually to overcome these sensations with patience and practice over a few sessions.

Just sitting still is not meditation (although it constitutes a preparation.)  

Attention and alertness are required.  Don't just "zone out."

"I've heard Tibetan lamas say that wandering into what is known as "stupid meditation," or "sauna meditation," (basically just zoning out instead of maintaining any level of awareness) can lead to stupidity and rebirth in the animal realm." ~ Claudia at the Kagyu email list.

Following the Breath

Sometimes we need a support for our practice -- for meditation or for any of the other techniques such as visualization.

Traleg Rinpoche says that it is important  ". . . to find comfort being able to be in oneself, with oneself.  Normally what do we do? We look for comfort elsewhere, through somebody or something else! Our arrogance, our egocentricity, our selfishness, all of that is based on what we have, what we think we have, but never on what we really are."  

He, like all other Kagyu teachers, whose learning comes from the Buddha as confirmed by means of personal experience, says we can find our true nature -- our Buddha Nature -- through meditation.

Vipassana [Pali pron.]

Getting into the nature of the thoughts is the second kind of Buddhist meditation called Emptiness meditation or in Sanskrit, vipashyana.

When thoughts arise, as they always do,  recognize them for what they are -- they are not your mind, but only products of it.  The mind, as you probably know already, is quite able to play tricks on us.  It often creates illusions, sometimes of things that have very little foundation.  Think of the cinematic experience, for example, in which a series of still images seem to possess movement - - when we seek out that as entertainment, we say we are "going to the movies."  Think of a magician's performance.  In the traditional description, a rope becomes a snake. 

Getting Past the Monkey

The most usual way to calm the mind and quiet the monkey or get around it, is to follow the breath.  The breath is considered sacred, in the yogic tradition generally. It is the essence of life, among other things. But it also can provide a powerful a focus for the mind. When you find that you are paying attention or are absorbed in a thought, direct yourself to your breathing:  Now I am breathing out, now I am breathing in.  Follow the breath. Do not alter your normal, relaxed breathing, though. This may take a little practice.

Ven. Traleg Rinpoche, one of Karmapa's teachers, again: 

"Why the breath? According to Buddhism, the breath signifies life. When we stop breathing, that is when we die. Breath also signifies something else which is also very important in Buddhist philosophy, and that is a sense of impermanence. So to live, we have to die. Life and death, exhalation is death, inhalation is life. When we do that we become very present. We do not have to think about anything else, just pay attention to the breath coming and going. It is also said that when we pay attention to the breath we realize that the breath actually connects the body and the mind.  Breath is the conduit. We notice that our breathing pattern corresponds to our mental states -- if we become agitated, excited, we breath even harder, our heart starts to pump. That is why we pay attention to the breath, to bring ourselves to the present." 

In some traditions, a chant or mantra is used.  But when there is singing or  mumbling going on, it increases sensory input among other things, and even done silently, it requires some attention and serves to add a sound-memory to the breath, and that can unduly complicate the process of simple, relaxed meditation.  

A technique from a tradition in which the eyes are closed during meditation, is to search for "the bright light" in the mind.  But this may create worry in people who have difficulty finding that particular sensation. Therefore, following the breath is a good option.

Encouragement

We have seen that the Tibetan tradition uses images of taming the wild elephant, while the Zen tradition has a series of ox-herding pictures to illustrate progress in meditation.

Thich Nath Hanh (Venerable Guru/Lama Hanh) said that learning to meditate is like walking across a field of tall grass. The first few times, it is difficult ~ there is no path, but after we have passed through a few times, the way is clear and the going is easy.

  • Jan. 10, 2003, Sharon Begley (AP) to The Wall Street Journal:  

"Last October, when this column excerpted a book I co-wrote, The Mind and the Brain, many readers asked whether the kinds of alterations in brain wiring described there could be induced by meditation. Practicing the violin, for instance, or exercising a stroke-impaired arm both alter connections among brain neurons, producing exceptional musical skill or a return of mobility. But no one had systematically examined whether meditation can kick-start such "neuroplastic" changes. 

For neuroscientist Richard Davidson, the idea of doing so took shape at a meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2000. Over five days in Dharamsala, India, he and other invited scientists and philosophers briefed the Dalai Lama on the latest understanding of destructive emotions. (A book in stores this week, Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? by Daniel Goleman, recounts that meeting.) Out of the dialogue in Dharamsala came the idea of exploring how meditation, Buddhist or otherwise, might change the brain and, in particular, its emotional circuitry. 

Back in his lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Prof. Davidson and his team recruited employees of a local biotech firm. A randomly selected 23 received meditation training once a week, for two-to-three-hours, for eight weeks. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, taught them the technique called mindfulness, in which the meditator views passing thoughts as an impartial and nonjudgmental observer. Sixteen employees received no such training. 

The resulting brain differences were clear, as the UW researchers will report in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. After the eight weeks, and again 16 weeks later, EEG measurements showed that activity in the frontal cortices of the meditators had shifted: There were now more neuronal firings in left than right regions nestled just behind the forehead. That pattern is associated with positive feelings such as joy, happiness and low levels of anxiety, Prof. Davidson and others had found in earlier studies. The control group showed no such right-to-left shift. 

The results are still preliminary, and the number of subjects is relatively small. Earlier claims for the power of mindfulness were called into question last year, when a review by Scott Bishop of the University of Toronto found that many of the studies were "rife with methodological problems." Although "the available evidence does not support a strong endorsement" of mindfulness, he concluded, "there is some evidence it may hold some promise." 

The UW research avoids the worst of the methodological pitfalls, such as lack of a control group, and also fits with a long line of neuroplasticity studies on animals and people. These show that paying attention is a sine qua non for neuroplastic changes, and that just thinking about repeated movements can in some cases change the brain as extensively as the movements themselves. Focused attention is a hallmark of mindfulness meditation. 

EEGs don't have fine enough spatial resolution to reveal what synaptic changes caused the shift in frontal cortex activity from
right to left. For that, the UW researchers are using other neuro-gadgets. 

Through MRI, they're examining whether meditation strengthens connections between a region of the prefrontal cortex and a brain structure called the amygdala. A little almond-shaped center deep in the brain, the amygdala is involved in such negative emotions as fear, anger, anxiety and depression. Inhibitory signals from the prefrontal cortex appear to rein in the amygdala like a good yank on a kite string. The stronger or more numerous those "stop firing!" signals, the stronger the inhibition. 

"It appears that the inhibitory signal reaching the amygdala can be modulated voluntarily," says Prof. Davidson. 

A newer technique, called diffusion tensor imaging, will show whether meditation induces actual structural changes in the connections between the frontal lobes and amygdala. 

The plasticity of connections between the thinking and feeling regions of the brain casts doubt on the belief that each of us has a "set point" for happiness, and that neither a Powerball win nor a Sept. 11 tragedy budges it for long. If inhibitory connections between the frontal lobes and the amygdala can be strengthened in an enduring way, then perhaps you can voluntarily shift that not-so-set-point. 

"I suspect that the set point is more moveable than we think, and that meditation can move it," says Prof. Davidson. "The idea that our brains are the result of the unfolding of a fixed genetic program is just shattered by the data on neuroplasticity.

  • Nov. 15/05, WebMD Medical News' Salynn Boyles. "Meditation May Physically Alter Brain: Research Shows 'Western-Style' Meditation May Slow Age-Related Brain Deterioration":

Early research suggests that daily meditation can alter the physical structure of the brain and may even slow brain deterioration related to aging.

The study showed that parts of the brain known as the cerebral cortex were thicker in 20 people who meditated for as little as 40 minutes a day, compared with 15 people who did not meditate.

The region plays a critical role in decision making, working memory, and brain-body interactions, researcher Sara Lazar, PhD, tells WebMD.

Lazar is a research scientist at Harvard Medical School's Massachusetts General Hospital. She presented the study at Neuroscience 2005, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. It also appears in the latest issue of the journal NeuroReport.

Western-Style Meditation

The findings are not the first to suggest that meditation can change the way the brain works and that this change can be measured through brain imaging. Recent studies involving Buddhist monks in Tibet suggest that meditation alters key electrical impulses within the brain.

But the monks in the study had devoted their lives to the practice of meditation. The 20 people who meditated in the latest research did so for an average of about six hours a week, with some meditating for as little as four hours weekly.

"Our findings provide the first evidence that alterations in brain structure are associated with Western-style meditation practice, possibly reflecting increased use of specific brain regions," Lazar says.

Specifically, brain regions associated with attention, sensory processing, and sensitivity to stimulation originating within the body were thicker in the meditators. There was also some suggestion that meditation may protect against age-related thinning of this specific region of the brain.

"We are talking about a small but important region involved in working memory, which has been shown to decrease rapidly during aging," Lazar says.

Dalai Lama Weighs In

The study is one of several exploring the potential impact of meditation on the brain presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting. The topic was widely covered by the media, thanks to the presence of the Dalai Lama at the meeting.

In a speech to the group on Saturday, the Tibetan spiritual and political leader told the gathered neuroscientists that they should increase their efforts to understand how meditation and similar practices affect brain activity.

The question is getting a lot of attention from the media, but Harvard Medical School professor of psychology Stephen Kosslyn, PhD, tells WebMD that the hype is getting ahead of the science.  Kosslyn moderated a seminar in which the new studies on meditation and brain activity were presented.  "These studies show that it is possible to do science on this topic, but it is much too early to conclude anything at all from them," he says.

Prayer and Meditation

Some traditions appeal for support or blessings from those who have been successful.  

Excuses

  1. I don't have time. Try a few minutes here and there. Some is good, more is nice. An unbroken twenty minutes a day is not an unreasonable goal.
  2. It is too noisy here.  Practice where it is quiet if you can, to gain some control, but try meditating in different situations so that you can do it anywhere, if you desire.  Lock yourself in the bathroom, if you have to.  To keep a sacred spot is nice, but not always possible.
  3. I missed my regularly scheduled meditation time. Ideally, meditation is done morning and evening.  If you have to choose, first thing in the morning (after going to the bathroom, but before consuming anything) is best as you are less likely to be sleepy.
  4. My body is not suitable or ready. I am a smoker or user of other drugs/medication.  I am too stiff or old or fat or . . .  . Though your ideal may be a "pure" state, the body itself is rarely pure.  Even that of great saints and sadhus is full of the most disgusting gasses, fluids and solids.  Do not put the cart before the horse. The practice of meditation will help you attain other personal objectives.
  5. I am too troubled, in too great discomfort. More carts before more horses.  The horse of meditation practice will lead the cart of suffering to its terminus. 
  6. I already tried it; it didn't do anything for me.  That was the response of my aged father when I suggested that his chronic back pain might diminish, and that his obsession with the past also would lessen with the practice of meditation.  

He was confusing relaxation techniques with meditation.  You know -- "Now my toes are relaxed, my feet, my legs, etc. " That may be a good way to lessen pain and also to induce sleep.  Perhaps relaxation of the body may sometimes serve as a preparation for meditation but they are not equivalent.

 

Confusing Meditation with Other Practices

People do confuse the term meditation with other techniques, as in #6 above. 

In 1974, Lawrence LeShan wrote a popular short manual called How To Meditate which was reprinted several times. It served to draw attention to the fact that meditation is practiced in many cultures and religious traditions, but that book mainly concerns the mental activity called contemplation.   

In contemplation, an image or idea is evoked from the short- or long-term memory, or an object is used upon which the gaze rests.  Associated ideas in the form of events in a life or in symbolic associations are used to motivate the person or to draw them close to a being or an ideal.  A flame or a sacred image, prayers said with the beads of a rosary, repetitions of a phrase of the "human potential" type, eg. I am beautiful; I deserve wealth, are examples of this form of  mental activity.  They may be beneficial in various ways, but this is not what is generally meant by "meditation" in the Buddhist sense.  

A Christian person can be conscious of the significance of the sacrifice of self for the sake of others by contemplating the life of Jesus.  There is no doubt that to do this is a powerful and up-lifting experience, it is not meditation.  Perhaps the better expression is "contemplating the Example," even if some people in so-doing may experience an actual identification with Christ.

Overview of Meditation in the Western* World

With the publication in 1946 of The Autobiography of a Yogi by Swami Paramahansa Yogananda (of the Self Realization Fellowship) the genuine yogic tradition became less a part of the romantic fantasy sometimes known as Orientalism, and more an acceptable, though eccentric, option for ordinary people. In the 1950's and '60's, many books and a few television series, especially Lilias, Yoga and You made for PBS, appeared.  

When it became known that The Beatles had traveled to Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas to study with the jolly-looking Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, further attention was drawn to meditation.  Transcendental Meditation or TM made famous by the Maharishi, and to which Swami Shyams is said to have contributed, became the most common system outside Asia, with the Zen form of sitting practice [zazen] possibly next in popularity. 

Now the more relaxed Tibetan form, shinay, is gaining in popularity.

Keeping Cool

Extract from Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama's "The Monk in the Lab," that appeared April 26, 2003 in The New York Times:

" . . .  I visited the neuroscience laboratory of Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. Using imaging devices that show what occurs in the brain during meditation, Dr. Davidson has been able to study the effects of Buddhist practices for cultivating compassion, equanimity or mindfulness. For centuries Buddhists have believed that pursuing such practices seems to make people calmer, happier and more loving. At the same time they are less and less prone to destructive emotions.

According to Dr. Davidson, there is now science to underscore this belief. Dr. Davidson tells me that the emergence of positive emotions may be due to this:  Mindfulness meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger. This raises the possibility that we have a way to create a kind of buffer between the brain's violent impulses and our actions.

Experiments have already been carried out that show some practitioners can achieve a state of inner peace, even when facing extremely disturbing circumstances.  Dr. Paul Ekman of the University of California at San Francisco told me that jarring noises (one as loud as a gunshot) failed to startle the Buddhist monk he was testing. Dr. Ekman said he had never seen anyone stay so calm in the presence of such a disturbance.

Another monk, the abbot of one of our monasteries in India, was tested by Dr. Davidson using electroencephalographs to measure brain waves.  According to Dr. Davidson, the abbot had the highest amount of activity in the brain centers associated with positive emotions that had ever been measured by his laboratory.

Of course, the benefits of these practices are not just for monks who spend months at a time in meditation retreat. Dr. Davidson told me about his research with people working in highly stressful jobs. These people -- non-Buddhists -- were taught mindfulness, a state of alertness in which the mind does not get caught up in thoughts or sensations, but lets them come and go, much like watching a river flow by. After eight weeks, Dr. Davidson found that in these people, the parts of their brains that help to form positive emotions became increasingly active."

Intensive Sessions

In traditional Kagyu retreats, a meditation session (Tib. t'hun) is from 2 1/2 to 3 hours long. The day is structured around 4 of them.  The first session runs from about 4 - 6 am, the second from about 9 to 12 noon, the third from about 1 to 3:30 pm, and the fourth from about 6 to about 9 pm.

On certain occasions, there are drupchen which are continued sadhana practices, or pujas, that go on through the night. 

Ideally, the meditative state of awareness is maintained no matter what other activities the body is engaged in. 

Other denominations of Buddhism also observe these kinds of retreats.  People in the Zen tradition can do seshin lasting for 7-10 days, with a 24-hour "sitting" on special occasions such as Shakyamuni's Birthday, Rohatsu.

________________________________________________________________

Tips intended for older, less flexible persons as submitted to the Kagyu email list:

1. [If you suffer from chronic pain] take your medication a little before you start.

2. Use a decent cushion; those round things [zafu] you see everywhere are not for me. I use a cushion that is "smile shaped" and pitched to be a bit higher in the back than the front. It is manufactured by Cosmic Cushion . . .  .

3. Put a little something under your bottom ankle. Or better yet, use a nice cushy zabuton.

4. Do some light stretching after sitting.

5. Put a zen [shawl, outer upper garment] or a light blanket on your legs to keep them warm. Make sure your feet are warm enough.

6. Get up when you start to get uncomfortable. Lengthen the time you sit gradually.

7. Most important of all: Keep your back straight, not arched, not slumped . . .  . Your bones should be supporting you, not your muscles.  If your muscles are complaining, you are not sitting in balance.  I had a friend check out my alignment at first.  Sitting out of balance is going to really hurt.

Alternative?  Sure. Sit up straight in a chair.  

Whatever the position, the bottom half of the body should feel solidly stable, but the upper should feel light and loose.  Meditation is an activity of the mind -- you can do it anywhere, at any time, in any position.  

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Western is a convenient term for predominantly Euro-American in culture or life-style.

drugs:  Here's an interesting article in which 2 Zen teachers comment on the use of "ecstasy" (MDMA)  http://csp.org/practices/entheogens/docs/saunders-ecstasy_rel.html

masth:  mature male elephants can behave wildly and aggressively at the time of rut or sexual excitement, a time during which they also secrete special hormones from their facial ducts.  Buddha Shakyamuni's presence  is said to have brought such a dangerously charging beast to its knees.  

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