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
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!
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.
July 3, 2011 § 3 Comments
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
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:
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!
February 25, 2011 § 7 Comments
So, you’ve undertaken this journey. This study, this way of thinking, a philosophy, which finally SPEAKS to you. You find thoughts in it you knew you’ve been thinking all along, and you find they’re not just YOUR thoughts, they were also the thoughts of one important person who lived thousands of years ago — his name was Siddharta Gautama. Happily, you read along and learn about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and slowly but surely, this thing creeps into your consciousness … You realize, there’s no “you” in Buddhism.
You read along and you wonder, WHAT? How could I not be me? How could there be no “me”? “I”‘ve been here all along! Look, “I”‘m still here! See? See that? “Me”! Lookit, there “I” am again! Oops “I” did it again! Here “I” am see? “Me”!
But no, says Buddha, there is no you. The “you” that you think of as “you”, nope. Not there. Not, there, at, all.
And that’s about where I’m finding myself right now in my studies, and BOY is this a tough concept to wrap my head around. It’s an especially tough concept, I think, for most Western-thinkers because of how we structure our idea of ‘self.’Truly, we have a pretty set idea of who ‘we’ are — democrat, republican, Christian, atheist, liberal, conservative, Mom, Dad, Wife, Husband, Brother, Sister, and any combination of those things. We’re any of those things, and that’s it. We don’t really change it. Everything we think and do must fit into the parameters of those things that we’ve identified as part of who that “I” or “self” is.
What I see, though, from what we’ve been reading with the Skeptical Readers of SL book club that I run, is that part of letting go — part of the cessation of ‘dukkha’ or suffering, is understanding this very concept of what is often referred to as ‘no-self.’
Part of understanding the idea of the “I” that we refer to is in taking a look at the Five Aggregates, which I’ve got links to articles and explanations for on my Terminology page. Even with these articles, the idea of there not being a ‘self,’ is really tough to grasp. At one moment I feel like I get it, and the next moment, I clearly do not.
Taking into consideration previous discussions with my virtual Sangha-mates and group discussions, my readings, research, and desperate attempts to wrap my head around this, I’ve come up with this analogy (I need to work in analogies because concepts like this? Yeah, I need to put them into terms I can understand. Remember, I’m SO not academic, ugh.)
“No-Self” is like the color white because …
- just like white is composed of all the colors of light in the spectrum combined, the picture composed of ‘myself’ comes from the Five Aggregates — how “I” react to various stimuli — sensory, mental, etc., makes up the ‘me’ that I know.
- just like the color white, that ‘me’ is not unchanging. It is reflected differently at different times — just like the color white can be on cloth, stone, a flower or clouds, and it’s still ‘white,’ “I” take different forms as well.
So, it’s not really that there’s ‘no me,’ just like there’s no ‘no color’ in ‘white,’ it’s just that “I” am made up of the Five Aggregates, and how that ‘me’ is reflected out depends on, well, the ‘material’ on which they are being reflected by–just like all the colors of the spectrum that make the color (soon to be known by me as ‘no-color’) white. White doesn’t change, just what the white is on.
Uhhhhmmm, so am I even close? This is how far I’ve developed my understanding of this question. I’m hoping that I’ve gotten it, or am getting close to getting it, because understanding this idea of ‘self’ is central to fully understanding the concepts of ‘suffering’ (second part of the Four Noble Truths) and the ‘cessation of suffering (Third Noble Truth).
Understanding the self, and how it clings, and how the idea of self and how it should actually be formed are important parts of the idea of reaching nirvana, nibanna, or however else you say ‘enlightenment.’
Not that I ever really expect to actually REACH enlightenment, realistically speaking, but I would still like a shot at trying to gain a glimpse of it, anyway 😉
So, yeah, if any of you who do read this have something to add, a point to clarify, or a way of making me (and consequently others) see this more clearly, I very much welcome you to share! Thanks 😀
December 27, 2010 § 12 Comments
Going to come back around to the Eightfold Path project, and just grab this opportunity that has come around for me to think on this topic which has been itching the back of my brain for a while anyway.
The issue is of the lay practice — so those of us who practice Buddhism on a daily basis by somehow cramming it into the nooks and crannies of our already jam-packed lives. The virtual group in Second Life that I meet with on a weekly basis has reached Chapter 8 in Walpola Rahula’s “What the Buddha Taught,” in which the question of the lay practice and Buddhism in today’s world are addressed.
When starting off on this exploration of Buddhism, I couldn’t help but get swept up in the question of “How intensely does this need to be a part of my life?” Even now, I feel like a fraud among scholars who pour over texts, suttas, learn Pali and study history and science. I do none of these things. I may glance through a relevant sutta here and there and stumble through it, grasping at phrases and ideas. I’ll go through snippets of blogs, and listen to podcasts when I can while I scrub dishes (and help kids with this that and the other thing). I’ll try to read discussions on various web sites and re-read complex phrases about five times on average, JUST to make sure I’ve understood what various contributors to the discussions are saying. I’m going to admit here that many times, what many people say go WAY over my head.
In these discussions and podcasts, I see and hear the word “retreat” so often being bandied about — either those who have gone on them or being suggested as a means to become more skillful in meditation, etc. — that I started to fret that, well, I haven’t gone on one. Honestly, I don’t see myself doing anything like that until my kids are at least in college. I just CAN’T take off for a week, a month, let alone several months, without my family. Attached much? Absolutely. Gonna change it? Hell no.
Compared to all these people, I feel like the ULTIMATE lay person. I have no hopes of taking classes in Pali any time soon, if ever. I’ll never be a scholar of philosophy, culture, or history … definitely not the way many of my Sangha-mates seem to be. And I often wonder … how many people — lay people — become intimidated when they see some of this stuff and just run away? I’ll circle back on that issue another time, hopefully. All this, just to convey that I consider myself a VERY lay practitioner of Buddhism, in the interest of full disclosure (because I was worried you wouldn’t be able to tell, hahaha).
Growing up, I always knew that there are Buddhist monks and nuns who devote their entire lives to just practicing — the Dharma is the sole focus of their lives. Seems that there are schools of thought that have come to believe that monks and nuns are really the only ones who would be able to reach Enlightenment (Nirvana).
So, as a mom, a wife, the holder of a full-time job, where’s my place in this picture? Where do I fit? Where does Buddhism fit? Mindfulness? Where do I have room for THAT?
I kind of suspect I’m not alone in this. Most of us just can’t set our whole entire families, jobs, and LIVES aside for this practice of Buddhism, or anything, really. Most of us don’t, and don’t have to, thankfully.
Seems that way back when, lay people had the same concerns and questions, and addressed them to Buddha. The Buddha laid out for the lay practitioner (or householder), how individuals can make sure they live their lives as lay people and still very much ‘be Buddhist.’ In doing so, he also showed his own sense of respect for the relationships ‘every day people’ have between each other:
From the Sigalavada Sutta: (an excerpt of the sutta regarding how a ‘householder’ should practice)
And the Exalted One spoke as follows:
“Inasmuch, young householder, as the noble disciple (1) has eradicated the four vices in conduct, (2) inasmuch as he commits no evil action in four ways, (3) inasmuch as he pursues not the six channels for dissipating wealth, he thus, avoiding these fourteen evil things, covers the six quarters, and enters the path leading to victory in both worlds: he is favored in this world and in the world beyond. Upon the dissolution of the body, after death, he is born in a happy heavenly realm.
The above goes on in much detail, and I encourage everyone who is a lay practitioner to go through and read the information (as much as you are able). The essence of this sutta, however, is simply that every day Joe Schmoes can very much follow Buddhism and ‘be Buddhist’ by following the basics of ‘leading a decent life,’ or ultimately, just following the Eightfold Path. The purpose of this sutta really seems to me, to be, to break out the essence of the Eightfold Path in a way that is more accessible to ‘regular people.’
Wikipedia had a great graphic for the portion of this sutta that deals with the protection of close relationships, in which Buddha talks about the six major relationships that individuals have. I really liked this part of the sutta because it served to show the respect that the Buddha has for these various relationships each person develops over the course of their lives.
Looking at all of this, it was an interesting project for me to see which part(s) of the Eightfold Path some of these things like Five Precepts, the ‘acts’ in the six major relationships etc. would fit into, and why.
I don’t pretend that I really ever expect to reach Enlightenment. To be honest, as I ponder over my dishpan hands, throw together lunches before school on weekdays, do the many chores that need to be done around the house, I believe that I’ll be lucky if I ever get a handle on mindfulness, understand all the bits of the Eightfold Path and manage to keep Dharma in my life. Most of the time, I don’t really feel that I’m doing anything to really “be Buddhist.”
That’s the honest truth. I think that’s the truth for many of us lay practitioners. So, it’s a relief to find that built right in to this philosophy is the idea of the ‘noble’ in simple, every day living. There is reverence and respect to be cultivated and found in family, work, friendships and just going about our everyday, lay person’s life. Just as is defined when looking at the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path, ‘being Buddhist’ has more to do with how it is we approach these relationships and ‘mundane’ tasks and interactions of every day life, rather than our decision to shave our heads and don robes.
So, while I may nod off in the middle of my attempt to meditate and go through anywhere up to a week between sessions ‘on the cushion,’ I am glad to now be able to take comfort in knowing that I am still ‘Buddhist’ simply because … well … I looked this stuff up 🙂
September 29, 2010 § 2 Comments
OK so … one of the points of frustration for me as a beginning Buddhist is having trouble finding LIVE support. You know, someone to talk to about what I need to know, ask questions to about what I’ve read, someone to simply learn from. I believe they’re called “Dharma Friends,” from what I’ve picked up through listening to various podcasts (see? this is what I mean!) Someone who helps you walk along the path, basically, and serves as a guide to those who are starting out and learning the basics.
Definitely, from what I’ve seen, Skeptical and Secular Buddhism are budding branches of this philosophy. There seems to be groups in some of the larger metropolitan areas, looks like maybe on the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada, and maybe the Mid-West? Not sure. Either way, all I can say is that in my neck of the woods — rural Central New York — I can only find one reference to Buddhism, and it’s some kind of really heavily ritualized form of Buddhism. Not my bag.
So where have I gotten what I know so far (which isn’t much, really)? Online, mainly. The most valuable information I’ve picked up has come from the almost-real interactions of the 3D virtual world — Second Life. There have been other sources of information too — podcasts, books, Web sites, face book pages and more. All of those, however, are limited in the sense that it is a one-way conversation — the author talking to me, or the interviewer and interviewee talking to each other. I, however, get no opportunity to interject, ask questions or take part in the conversation. As an educator, I know that most learning comes from active, social situations in which students get the opportunity for some give-and-take.
That’s where Second Life has come in for me. Like I said, 3D virtual world, and yes, the sordid stories you MAY have heard about some of the goings-on there are true. Let’s make this clear: Second Life is the Internet, 3D, and you do interact with others who are surfing in this 3D manifestation of this world. So whatever, and I mean WHATEVER, you can find on the Internet, you’ll find there — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I’ve chosen to go with the good, and use SL as the one and only place where I can have a Sangha — a group of practitioners with which to meet and from whom I can learn. In Second Life, I’ve been lucky enough to find two great groups — Skeptical Buddhists’ Sangha, and Secular Community. They have both been instrumental in putting me in touch with some valuable information and support in my early stages of learning about Buddhism.
Unfortunately, those who run and organize the meetings for these groups seem very busy in RL (real life), and haven’t had many meetings lately. So, in my desperation, I created a reading group in SL, specifically for beginners like myself.
Our first meeting for this reading group (Skeptical Readers of SL) was on Sunday, and I was really excited at how well it went. It definitely wouldn’t have gone as well had it not been for the support of Sung Hifeng (his SL avatar’s name). This is what I mean about support from virtual sources — he’s clear across the other side of the country from where I am, but he was able to “sit” in a “room” with me, help me gather other like-minded individuals to meet us in SL, and talk about our first reading, answer questions in REAL-TIME (none of this posting and waiting for hours and days for a reply stuff) about what we should read, when, how, etc.
I’m really excited about this group, and I’m hoping we can gather a few more people for the next meeting, which will again be on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. PST (that’s the time they operate on in SL). We’ll be talking about Chapter 1 of “What The Buddha Taught” By Walpola Rahula, and I know that I’ll get so much out of the give-and-take that will take place with everyone!
If you are reading this, and want to consider joining SL, or if you already play SL and want to join us next week, I hope you do! Feel free to look me up in-word and ask any questions. My avatar’s name is Ryuko Naminosaki.
Finally, if you want to check out my group’s Skeptical Reader’s Haven, feel free to click on the link below. You’ll need to have an SL account to log in and take a peek, of course: