The thing that really scares me is spontaneous personal expression. For example, I can actually freestyle pretty well, but I've only done it for an audience a handful of times. Doing it for one person is even scarier. Rapping someone else's lyrics for any audience doesn't raise my pulse at all, but having people hear what I come up with in the moment is oddly terrifying.
Last night was my friend Luke's birthday party. Before the complete production, which is like the parties I've seen in movies, but better, he hosted a small dinner and meditation session for half a dozen of us. I went because I've met awesome new friends every time I've gone to one of his dinner parties, and despite hearing about how much it's improved everyone's lives, I've just never really understood meditation.
We all sat on cushions on the top floor of his house. We would be doing pair meditation, Luke explained. We were to sit and ping-pong back and forth offering one word descriptions of what's going on in our bodies and minds. He and his partner went back and forth to demonstrate:
Uh oh, I thought. What if I can't think of what to say? What if there are two sensations? What if it takes me too long to articulate it? What if I don't feel anything? What if I sound ridiculous? What if I keep feeling the same thing-- should I make up something new or just keep repeating?
All of those niggling fears faded to the background and were replaced by a much bigger one when I heard what Luke said next: "let's do this for twenty minutes".
Besides the Vipassana retreat I bailed from early, every other attempt to meditate has been me setting an alarm for ten minutes and then deciding after 90 seconds that it was pointless. Now I would have a partner, so I couldn't bail.
Deep breath. Ok, let's do this.
At Vipassana, I kept having thoughts. I'd try to extinguish them, but they'd be replaced with more thoughts. If I could somehow force a couple seconds of mental emptiness, I would immediately congratulate myself and lose it.
But this tandem meditation was different. When forced to articulate thoughts and sensations, I found that they all got stage fright. Miraculously, I never fell into the loop of thinking, "I need to think of something to say". Instead, my mind was blank for most of the time.
After a few minutes the alarm went off. Luke must have set it wrong, and now we'd have to start over. I couldn't believe it when he told us that twenty minutes had passed. It was the first time I'd ever experienced that timelessness that meditation is supposed to provide.
To experience any of the real benefits of meditation, I'd have to do it on an ongoing basis, but this exercise helped me experience what meditation is like and made it feel a lot more accessible. If you can get over the fear of acting ridiculously, give it a shot-- it's as simple as I described.
Tynan I love your writing and your site, and I weigh in here with all due respect. I'm currently studying to teach meditation, and dude it sounds like you had some really bad instruction at vipassana. The biggest myth we try to dispel at my meditation classes is the idea that you are supposed to (or would ever be able to) extinguish thought. NOBODY doesn't have thoughts -meditation just helps you realize that all your thoughts aren't necessarily right, require action, or are even yours. It's big stuff.
Here's a really better explanation than the one it sounds like you got:
1. Take a comfortable seat. Whatever that means - cross-legged, on a chair, laying down.
2. Focus your attention on where you most acutely feel the breath in your body - nostrils, abdomen, throat, wherever.
3. Just breathe normally, and when you notice that your attention has left the place where you were focusing it on the breath (i.e. wandered into thought, which it will within seconds), return the attention to the breath.
4. Lather rinse repeat - your attention will follow off on some thought every 1, 2, or 5 seconds, and just keep returning it to the breath. It's powerful mojo muscle training that feels sometimes great, sometimes challenging, sometimes neutral.
True Vipassana welcomes each thought as an opportunity to practice. What are you practicing? Developing the awareness that is the "attention" that notices that your attention has wandered - that's the capital-A Attention that helps you realize what you really are, who you really are, and how much of what you think you are is really just a hodge-podge of conditioning, habit, and cultural impulse.
No matter how bad-ass we are at how many things, without getting into the core shit of what we're really about (which is only possible through a regular daily practice) you're functioning from a script that isn't entirely your own.
What you describe at your party sounds more like a cool and useful exercise in partner dialogue , but it isn't meditation.
Meditation is about simply developing awareness of your greatest self, friendliness with your mind, and removing layers of invisible crap to reveal even more of the amazingness of who you and the people around you are.
Seems like you've got a good community of readers who meditate. This comments thread had me thinking after my last comment about why I consider meditation different from other "good for you" things like exercise and reading good books and eating right.
It's because, to me, meditation is practicing the most fundamental skill that pervades the rest of my life. My favorite metaphor is that I am sitting in a dark room, and for my whole life have been struggling, flailing around, trying to get out of the room, trying to deal with the fact that I can't see anything. All that struggle has kept my eyes from dilating and adjusting to the darkness, and it's meant I've been banging into things, cutting myself on edges, knocking stuff over through my blind actions. I'd be much happier if I were to sit still and allow my eyes to adjust so that I could make out the shapes of things and then move skillfully within the dark room.
Meditation is the sitting still and allowing my eyes to adjust. But while there are formal styles of meditation (zazen, vipassana, etc.) the Buddha's instructions were simple (and myriad) - "Breathing, know that you are breathing." "Eating, know that you are eating." "Walking, know that you are walking." Etc.
The core of Buddhist awareness meditation is just bringing the attention to the present moment so that you are aware of what is happening. This doesn't require sitting on a special cushion to do it, though formal sitting practice is helpful because it's like any other skill: you don't learn to play tennis by having a pro serve you 120mph tennis balls. You learn by starting with easy lobs.
Similarly, most people find it's a lot easier to pay attention to a reduced set of stimulus in a quiet place when you're not moving than in a crazed hurricane of stimulus. It might be tough for a beginner to meditate in (to pick a timely example) the neon back-streets of Bangkok where everyone's yelling at you all the time.
Lately I have not been sitting much. When I'm in town I try to go to my meditation group (see seattledharmapunx.com) but that's just 40 minutes once a week. The real meat of meditation for me is during daily life. I meditate when I walk down the street, when I clean my house, when I eat, when I brush my teeth, when I ride the bus. I stop for a brief moment and feel all the sensations inside my body that I can (pressure, contact with cloth, heat and cold, tension, weight... you know, just the stuff you feel inside the body.) Maybe I stay there and just do that - that's a gateway to emotion, too (I've heard Buddhist teachers say that emotions are just thought + physical sensation.) So maybe that clues me in to why I'm in a weird mood, or it lets me notice I'm in a weird mood in the first place. Maybe I bring my attention to the sounds or smells around me and try to really be aware of them. Or the thoughts streaming through my head.
Point being, you don't need to torture yourself to meditate, and I think it's a mistake to talk about it like some difficult asceticism. It is unnatural, in the sense that we humans really like to distract ourselves from unpleasant or neutral (boring) sensation, so maybe just start really bringing your attention to the present when things are pleasurable and then over time try staying with the neutral and unpleasant, too. You'll notice huge benefits, I guarantee.
(I say this to anyone, not just Tynan.)
Doing other things that increase your life span or your health during your life or whatever are great, too, and not to be discounted, but meditation is more fundamental than those, I think, because it's about intensifying my experience of the present moment so that I'm really here when things happen, and really aware of what's going on. The more I meditate, the more I feel I am actually alive.
Tynan, I would advise you to ignore to these "experts" if you have found a meditation method that works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all method. In fact, my method is just to place my awareness in my left foot as often as I can throughout the day as I don't see meditation as being something that is incompatible with other mental or physical activities. Stay on the path!
Tynan I do enjoy your blog, but you so clearly lack any fundamental understanding of meditation that I wish you would just stop writing about it. The manner in which you write about it really makes you look like a jackass. If you were to explore this subject a bit more, I think it would really add a great dimension to your writing and general lifestyle. I guess I'm just surprised, given the subject matter of many of your blog posts, that you don't take meditation more seriously. Please feel free to contact me if you are in need of relevant book recommendations; I have a few I know you would enjoy.
dude- I'm on a binge of your posts. I think this is number 7 or 8. Loving loving loving it. I'm enjoying Xiao's Blend while reading, a tea I can't recommend enough. You can check it out at Peet's.
It's camomile, peppermint, and rosehips.
The point of meditation is not to go blank, as others have stated before me. You left Vipassana on the same day that the majority of people who quit will leave. You had the idea that you're supposed to be blank and instead of investigating that and looking at yourself, letting your thoughts come as they will and calmly bringing yourself back to your breath (not forcing yourself back angrily, frustrated), you just left. The instruction would have helped you through this process, as would have asking one of the teachers.
Having said that, most people who meditate went through years of thinking as you do--that meditation just doesn't work for them, and they have all the excuses and complaints that you do. The difference is that you are voicing yours publicly while for many others it is a much more quiet journey.
Meditation keeps coming into your life. If it was me I'd investigate that further, but of course it's up to you.
If you want to master meditation in a Hardcore Way then read this book! "Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book" by Daniel Ingram. You can buy or even download a Free PDF Version of the book here: http://www.interactivebuddha.com/mctb.shtml
A Great Read!
Centerpointe is technology, not meditation - it's useful for relaxation and stress relief, but it isn't really doing what mediation does (i.e. training you in very specific ways of getting to know your mind).
Eckhart Tolle, fun read, but yeah derivative and a bit full of it. Go for the Buddhist texts, Sharon Salzberg's new book 28 days is awesome.
I first heard about Vipassana from Rivers Cuomo, the lead singer for Weezer. He was explaining that despite being a rock star, he was celibate because of Vipassana. Powerful stuff, I guess. He raved about the benefits of it, although I don't remember exactly what he said anymore. It stuck in my mind, and over the years I thought about signing up, but something always seemed to be in the way of me leaving society for ten days to learn how to meditate.
The idea is simple and extreme, both of which appealed to me. You go to a meditation center in the middle of nowhere, agree to be silent and without any contact with the other world for ten days. Then, on a donation only basis, they teach you how to meditate, which you do for ten hours each day.
Finally, after knowing about it for five years, I signed up and went to a course. No notepads were allowed in, so this is reconstructed pretty faithfully from memory.
Request: I got a fascinating email about thinking. I'm sharing my thoughts, but I'd appreciate yours too. It's kind of a difficult question - how do you think? But it's fascinating, so I'd like you to weigh in after reading this post.
Fascinating email from Huy Nguyen -
My name is Huy, 21 years old from Vietnam currently studying in Singapore. I've been reading your blog and I must say you're 1 hell of an inspiring guy! Recently I have been pondering on the topic of mindfulness/self-consciousness and I thought why not drop you an email to say hi and seek for some help :)
My current problem is my thought speed is restricted to how much I can spell the thoughts out (in words and sentence) in my minds. And that'd be really slow. Sometimes, I'm able to speed-thinking (if that's the right word). I don't actually need to spell out the words in my mind, just link to some picture/scene and somehow I'm able to articulate and understand the situation in my mind. But this is a very rare case and I'm not fully able to control it. Have you ever encountered this problem? Do your mind think in English as well, or some special-made brain language?