Meditating While Exhausted ….

July 12, 2011 Comments Off on Meditating While Exhausted ….

There aren’t very many things in Secular or Skeptical Buddhism that I’ve found are really ‘required’ for anyone to do. In fact, from the time I began studying, the format has always been pretty free-form, which I truly appreciate. Being of the Type-A category of personality, I’m very driven by lists, going in the ‘correct order,’ and having things ‘in their place.’ Without these, I feel lost, confused and very out of

In Skeptical/Secular Buddhism, meditation is firmly grounded in the idea that it is for building up the ability to go through our daily lives in a more minful way. Nothing mystical about it!

sorts.

So, it took me some getting used to this less structured, more free-form approach to something. At first, it was disconcerting. I kept looking for rules, structure, scaffolding, a ladder, ANYTHING. Thanks to the guidance of those I practice with, however, I’ve been able to let go of my attachment to such structures, and allow the entrance of a more organic approach to walking that path. The result has been that, rather than being restricted by a structure, a strict order to do things in, I’ve been able to fit parts of the Buddhism into my life as time and circumstance has allowed. As a busy mom, this has been a real helping point!

That being said, there is ONE thing that all of my sangha-mates have insisted is something that one cannot forgo in Buddhism, and that is meditation. What has also been made clear to me over the months, is that getting meditation instruction is also instrumental in developing GOOD meditation habits. Things like retreats were also mentioned, where in-person instruction and guidance are given on techniques in meditation.

Being a parent to two not-that-little any more kids (5 and 7) and a teacher (read: my vacation dates are decided for me by the school district), I’m not so much at liberty to pick up and go on a three-month, let alone weekend, retreat to learn how to meditate. Living in a VERY isolated region of the country, I would also need to travel at least, AT LEAST, an hour one way just to find a group of people who DO meditate (without crystals and chanting — big no-no for me).  Because I’m the primary parent for transporting kids to their sporting events, dentist and doctor’s appointments etc., I just CAN’T devote that kind of time to chasing down instruction. So, my options were few.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t pursued meditation! At first, I tried it on my own, and was really wary. I’d looked into meditation in my college days. The book I’d found back then had clearly been written by some hippie somewhere who was all about psychotropic drugs — the book talked about closing my eyes and letting go, observing the ‘colors of my mind,’ letting things like my ‘aura’ and ‘spirit find their way to the light.’ Those aren’t direct quotes, but it was that type of thing. I don’t recall the title or the author, but it was a lot of hoo-hah which I didn’t really trust back then, and that I openly scoff at now as an adult. After chasing these false goals, I gave up and had a hard time ever since taking the idea of meditation very seriously.

After I met my current sangha-mates, it was made clear to me that there is a much more practical, down-to-earth approach to meditation. So, I tried again. The first time, I was really disturbed by how many thoughts there were zinging around in my head! I couldn’t stop them. I knew that part of what I was attempting was a ‘quieting of the mind,’ but I had no idea how. I grew angry and frustrated, and after 5 short minutes I stopped. I could NOT understand how this was supposed to help. GOOGLE TO THE RESCUE! I found a couple of guided meditations online, some of which came from Insight Meditation Center, based in California. I really liked those last ones. The instructors all had very calm voices, there was nothing about ‘waves’ and ‘aura’ and ‘spirit’ in there. Just ‘breath’ and ‘thoughts’ and ‘concentrating.’

So, I stuck to the stuff from Insight, and gradually, got the idea. I started with just two or three sessions a week — honestly, it is always hard for me to get in very many sessions in a week. Mornings simply aren’t available — it’s when I wake up, work out, jump in the shower and then start fetching breakfasts and start the house work. Then the day gets going. By the time my day winds down, my kids are in bed, and I’m not too far behind. I’m exhausted. Every moment, every minute of my day is PACKED with obligations, appointments, things that need to be taken care of. No different than anyone else out there, right?

Right. Well, thanks to a dharma friend, I was alerted to an online course on Mindfulness Meditation that the Insight Meditation Center was offering. It was just what I was looking for — all instructions online, anything audio posted on their web site, questions and answers for ‘homework’ could be done through e-mail. This was something I could easily fit into my daily routine.

Without going through all the nitty gritty details of how things went, suffice it to say that it is clear that taking a course IS necessary. While I recognize that in-person instruction also has its advantages, this course was a great alternative for me. I’ve been able to refine my practice of meditation, and it’s been an invaluable experience. Who knew there were so many layers to the mind, to one’s thinking? You know that scene in ‘Shrek,’ when Donkey asks if ogres are like onions, or parfaits, with lots of layers? That’s the mind, lots of layers — which I suppose some of us are aware of (we speak of them in terms of ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious,’), but I don’t think we ever believe we have control over some of those layers. We do. More than we think! I can’t tell you how that has shaped my every day life, you just have to experience it.

Also, the importance of making the time to sit “even for two minutes at the end of the day, to form the habit,” as my instructor e-mailed me, was made clear. Somehow, making the conscious effort to sit, even for two minutes before I go to bed, has allowed me to up my number of sessions from two or three, to probably about five or six. Sometimes it’s closer to four or five, but it’s an improvement! I don’t sit for hours, I don’t even sit for more than about 25 minutes at a time, really — it’s just not happening (any longer than that and I’m just passing out, really). That habit, that observation of the mind, has done more than I could say. And I’ve only just scratched the surface. I know I still know just the fundamentals, and there’s much more to what I need to practice to really be an experienced meditator.

In any event, I suppose the main purpose of this post is to show that we can all have a meditation practice — even we Jane Schmoes with kids who play T-ball and Bush League, full time jobs, meals to plan and a house to run. That’s not to say that we don’t nod off a bit while we try to meditate at the end of the day. It’s not to say that some days, we  don’t occasionally throw in the dish towel and crawl into bed with a few choice words to launch at the idea of meditating; but it’s possible to do. You CAN fit a regular practice in there, and doing it right, matters.

Take a course, and see!

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NOTE: The Skeptical Readers of SL, in conjunction with the Skeptical Buddhists, are going to be meeting beginning on July 23rd at 8:30 a.m. PST to follow Insight Meditation Center’s six-week course, “Mindfulness Meditation.” While it is not a ‘live’ course officially administered by the instructors at IMC, all the materials they offer are posted on their web site, and as a group, we will be following the materials together. Our weekly meetings will be used to check in with each other, and share notes on the ‘homework’ that is assigned through the course, and address any questions/issues/problems we may be experiencing.

The course is meant for individuals who are just beginning their meditation practice, or for those who wish to renew the basics of Insight meditation.

If you are so inclined, please do join us. We will be meeting at the Skeptical Buddhist’s Sangha.

Sangha — What’s In A Word?

July 3, 2011 § 3 Comments

Like Buddhism itself, the meaning of the word "sangha" has shifted over time. One may feel the need to say 'goodbye' to the ancient word and use a new one that is more relevant to Western practitioners.

I’m going to start this post in an unconventional way … with the concluding paragraph of Martine Batchelor’s article “Sangha in the West”:

Sangha is the third jewel and refuge on the Buddhist path. In the West there are many opportunities to cultivate and develop this jewel in a modern setting. We can learn from all the different models we can find, from traditional hierarchical ones or more modern consensual ones. Each will teach us and support us differently. This is a very important aspect of the practice that Westerners who come to Buddhism cannot ignore. It is inspiring that people are being creative in finding new ways to create meaningful communities.

Over the past few weeks, the Skeptical Readers of SL reading club has gotten together to talk about an article by Stephen Batchelor, called “Creating Sangha”. The article talks about what “sangha” means — right from what it was when Buddhists first gathered to practice, to what it appears to have come to mean in modern, Western practice. For those who are completely new to the term, Sangha is a community of monks and/or nuns who devoted their lives to attaining Enlightenment. Martine Batchelor’s article quoted above explores the various attempts in Western cultures to adopt the notion of sangha in Western culture, both for those who might have the opportunity to practice as a monastic, and for those who are lay practitioners (like myself!).

Between the two articles, and the discussions we’ve had in Second Life, it is clear that in order for Buddhism to survive in the context of modern, Western culture, a compromise of some sort must be reached. Stephen explains the how and why of the origination of Sangha as it has existed until now:

As Buddhism developed over centuries in different cultures, its form was determined by the economic and social conditions of former times. All traditional forms of Buddhism share in common the stamp of a medieval social structure. They emerged in societies with fixed class distinctions in which the course of a person’s life was determined at the time of his or her birth. The division between monastics and laity was as sharply defined as the division between classes. The life of the majority of the laity consisted of agricultural labor and the raising of families. A formal education was very limited if not absent. Monastics, in contrast, were largely free from having to engage in manual labor and had no family responsibilities. They were able to devote themselves entirely to the Dharma: through the study of philosophy, the practice of meditation and by serving a pastoral role in the community.

Stephen then goes on to question whether in today’s modern, industrialized, Western culture,  if there is still the need for monastics such as has existed previously. During our group’s discussion, I believe we unanimously agreed that in the context of OUR culture, there is no need for this structure. Monks and nuns really aren’t as needed as they were previously. We live in an age when public education makes literacy *almost* universal. Access to information is *almost* even across the plane. Inequalities do exist, but unlike in Buddha’s time, most people today learn to read, write, do math, use a computer and more. Speaking of computers, they also have made information more easily accessible. We also have much  more leisure time (though some may be hard pressed to agree — I’m making PBJs and fetching milk for my kids between paragraphs). I no longer need to seek out a Buddhist monk to give me the teachings. I can Google it, verify that the information is good, and use it if I so choose. I can commune with individuals on Facebook, in Second Life, and on various other discussion forums.

Don’t mistake me, we all still need teachers, and personally, I do see value in the existence of those who are able to devote their time to attending retreats and on their own, closely examining the teachings, right from their original forms in Pali or Sanskrit. Many people who do just that are, in fact, monks and nuns. In our North American and European cultures, there are many who do become ordained monks and nuns. There are many others who do not, because we have the reality of familial and/or professional obligations and commitments to which we cannot or do not wish to stray. Those individuals, however, may yet pursue knowledge in the field of Buddhism without becoming ordained. I’m lucky enough to have learned a great deal from people who have never been ordained, but know a LOT about the teachings in Pali, about Buddhism, and what the Buddha taught. In many ways, to my eyes, these academics are our modern-day ‘monks,’ to whom I don’t give bowls of rice … but who do give me invaluable pieces of insight and information.

In order for Buddhism to survive, and in order to practice Buddhism successfully, what has always been called ‘Sangha’ is necessary. Many of us who gather weekly (or more

In its 3-D virtual environment, the Skeptical Readers of SL group meets in what many of its members consider to be their 'sangha.'

often) in Second Life consider our group of peers our “sangha.” Could Sid have EVER imagined that one day, in a virtual 3-D environment, humans would have gathered to discuss, talk, and learn about his teachings? Would he have considered that to be a Sangha? What is the essential in the idea of Sangha, that third pillar of what is called the Triple Gem? If we take away the idea of having monks be a part of the group that gathers, talks, learns and teaches about Sid’s words, is it no longer a ‘Sangha’? If we’re not going to call it “Sangha,” what should we call it? Would we still call our practice ‘Buddhism’ if we don’t have monks in our sangha? Christians have ‘church,’ in Islam we have ‘mosk,’ in Judaism we have ‘temple.’ What should the new Buddhists have?

Ultimately, the answer probably doesn’t matter. Perhaps then, neither does the label — both the label of ‘sangha’ and of ‘Buddhism’. For the sake of simplicity, though, wouldn’t we want a word? Would sticking to ‘Sangha’ really be so terrible? Or would something in a romance language be more apropos?

After all, what is in a word?

I don’t pretend to have any answers to these questions, and while we discussed this topic over a few weeks, we definitely didn’t narrow down to any answers either. Here ARE some ideas that came out of the gathering, though:

  • We all value our gatherings, and basically consider the spirit of ‘sangha’ to be present in our gatherings and the groups that exist in this virtual platform. This includes Second life, Facebook, our various blogs and web sites, too.
  • Specifically considering Secular Buddhist communities, it is probably in our best interest to try to unify the various groups scattered throughout the virtual environment into one cohesively networked unit.
  • Networking with additional, existing Western Buddhist groups in Second Life would help connect with other like-minded Buddhists who may not yet have discovered Secular or the closely-related Skeptical Buddhism.

Tonight, the Skeptical Readers of SL group will be meeting to talk about these bulleted issues, specifically regarding networking and creating a cohesive unit. I realize this post is coming really late, but if there ARE any readers of this blog who can make it to our meeting tonight (July 3, 5:30 p.m. PST), you can do so here:

http://slurl.com/secondlife/Eclipse%20Forest/219/181/23

Most of all, to further the development of a strong practice in our culture, continued, mindful discussions on topics such as this are very important. Do consider following any one of my links, and engaging in a healthy discussion on a message board somewhere, post a comment here, or just join a group to learn more. The more you engage, the healthier our practice will be.

Hopefully, I’ll get to meet you soon!

Where Am I?

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