Monthly Archives: April 2008

Learning to Meditate: Notes from a Novice, Part 2

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The second day of the meditation workshop started with a review of the points we learned last week and everyone was given a chance to speak about their meditation practice during the week. I explained that I had made a meditation space of found objects in my home: a tea light in a cobalt blue glass container, placed on a mat in the middle of my coffee table. I also explained that I used a bead bracelet as a breath-counting device. I managed several 10 minute meditations during the week.

Then instructor then gave a brief overview of the tenets and practices of Buddhism: The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path with emphasis on the practice of meditation. She explained that Buddhist meditation is used to cultivate mindfulness; that is, an awareness of the body, the emotions, and our thoughts, and to discover the relationship between what we think and what we experience. A couple of examples of Buddhist meditation practices include Vipassana, from India, a technique that watches and categorizes thoughts, and Zen, from China and Japan, which incorporates ritual acts into the meditation practice.

Our first exercise of the day involved both a moving meditation in the center’s garden followed by a sitting meditation in the chapel where we would employ the Buddhist Vipassana technique of categorizing thoughts.

The instructor demonstrated how to do a walking meditation which requires a slow and exaggerated heel-ball-toe stepping motion. We formed a line and followed her out the door into the terraced meditation garden. It took me a moment to get the foot movement established and I realized it was not that much different from the movements I had been taught by my tai chi master. It proved to be a little more difficult to walk when we stepped off the path onto gravel. I focused my attention on exhaling with each downward step and visualizing my energy going down through each foot to connect with the center of the earth. In that way, I was able to feel balanced and stable on the shifting gravel.

I want to note that in the center of the garden is a statue of the nine muses of Greek mythology. As we walked we circled around this statue. This is personally significant to me because I am part of an online writing group that frequently utilizes the motif of the muses to inform our conversations about writing and creativity. I felt that my undergoing studies in meditation practices was being validated by the creative force of the universe.

After about 10 minutes of walking, the instructor lead us into the chapel where we did a sitting meditation. As I sat there looking at the stained glass window, I noticed my thoughts being directed forward into the future. I started asking myself questions. What will I do with this meditation practice? Which technique will work for me? Can I adhere to a disciplined life of meditation? What should I have for lunch?   This is an example of categorizing thoughts.  Some people dwell on the past or the present.

The exercise ended when the instructor rang some chimes and we broke for a short break. I spent the break journaling about my experience and reviewing some of the texts she had brought for us to look at. When we reconvened she began the section on Christian meditation.

The first item she covered was the text, “The Way of the Pilgrim,” written by an unknown Russian man in the mid 19th century. In brief, the text explains the use of the Jesus Prayer as a mantra coordinated with the breath during meditation. The Jesus Prayer has several variations from the complex: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” to the most minimalist version, “Jesus, Mercy.” The instructor started us on a 10 minute meditation using this prayer in silent recitation. I have to admit that I found it very hard to use this prayer as a mantra as my mind wanted to dwell on the meaning of the words in the prayer.

Next the instructor gave us a brief overview of the practices of Lectio Divina, which means “Divine Reading.” Basically, this is a rumination on the bit of text with the goal of the reader becoming absorbed into the text and experiencing the divine presence. The instructor provided us with the text of the St. Francis prayer. I chose to meditate on the first line, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” We were instructed to use any of the techniques taught to us. Most of the workshop participants chose to sit in the chapel, some in the garden, and a couple, including myself, chose a moving meditation. I started by walking through the garden and then doing a standing meditation in a manner that I had learned from my tai chi master. I began by silently reciting the first line of the prayer over and over. After a few minutes, my mind was directed to a situation in my life where I was not being an instrument of peace. This lead me to make a resolution concerning my actions in this situation.

After the instructor ended the exercise, we had an opportunity to discuss the experience. I can’t say that during this particular exercise that I achieved a sense of the Divine Presence but I can see the potential of this happening after some practice.

We wrapped up our time together by discussing what we wanted to do with the techniques we had learned. The instructor suggested that we find a trusted person who can act as a “spiritual director” to guide us as we practice our meditation.

I left the workshop with a lot of questions to research and a new desire to re-tool my spiritual practice to include a quiet time for meditation.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday morning.

 

Text and images:  Lori G. (c) 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning to Meditate: Notes from a Novice, Part I

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Back in the early 90’s I began studying Tai Chi Chuan and Qi Gong and did so for several years. As a result of these moving meditations, I did pick up the basics of meditative breathing and mindfulness. Over the years I have fallen away from the practice and am on the verge of forgetting the Form altogether. Wanting to regain some of the meditative benefits, I enrolled in an introductory meditation workshop. Maybe I will be more disciplined in sitting meditation rather than a moving one.

The first session was this past Saturday. It took place in a lovely meditation center complete with a chapel and an outdoor garden. The instructor is a certified yoga teacher and spiritual director. The first meeting involved yoga meditation and next week we will explore Christian and Buddhist meditative practices. The workshops will provide an overview of meditation, a smorgasbord of meditation techniques from which the participants will sample.

After introductions by the instructor and students, we engaged in a ten minute meditation, eyes closed, focusing on the inhale and exhale of breath. We were instructed to let intruding thoughts drift by, as if they were boats on a river. However, I struggled with this and quite frankly I actually visualized myself getting on the boat and drifting all the way down the river to the sea. Also, I felt a great deal of tension in my jaw, neck, arms and chest. This was not going to be as easy as I thought; however, I am pleased to say that after a few minutes, I did reach a certain level of calm awareness.

We spent the next segment learning about the Eight-Limbs of Yoga as articulated by a yoga master named Pantanjali. I learned from this that there is a coherent philosophy behind yoga meditation that is not uncommon to western practices of prayer and contemplation.

The next exercise involved a 30 minute composite of techniques, starting with counting breaths, alternating breaths through each nostril, and inhaling with a rolled tongue (“sitali,” or “straw breath”). We were then sent away either to sit in the garden or in the chapel and focus our eyes on an object near us. I went inside the chapel and chose the reflection of colored light from a stained glass window on the wooden floor. I found it difficult to keep my eyes open. They felt heavy as if I were falling asleep and I fought to keep from dozing off. I did notice after a few minutes of observing the light patterns on the floor that the markings of the wood grain seemed to become clearer and actually separate from the floor, creating an almost three-dimensional affect. Our instructor ended this segment with the ringing of a chime which seemed inordinately loud to me.

After taking a short break to partake of snacks of tangerines and almonds brought by the instructor, we reconvened and reviewed what had taken place. The instructor also handed out some articles from yoga journals and we looked over those as well.

For our final meditation exercise of the day, we engaged in 20 minutes of gazing at lit candles in the chapel. The instructor also asked each of us to think of a word or phrase that had meaning to us and to repeat it over and over in our minds as we inhaled and exhaled. At first I tried sitting on a meditation cushion but this put too much strain on my lower back so I moved to a chair. Once again, I had trouble keeping my eyes open and focused on the flame. My guess is that I will be meditating with my eyes shut most of the time.

After this exercise we had a short time of review and were assigned homework. By next week, we are to create our own meditation space, read the articles, and engage in at least 10 minutes of meditation three or four times this week experimenting with the techniques we were taught. Next Saturday’s session will deal with Buddhist meditation and Christian meditation, specifically the “Lectio Divina.”

I left the class feeling physically tired and bit light-headed. Additionally, I have to admit that I was a bit irritable for the rest of the day and today as well. At first I was a bit puzzled by this. I expected to leave feeling calm and serene. Then I recalled with the instructor had said at the start of the class—that the purpose of meditation is not to become more relaxed, although this is a side effect. The main purpose of meditation is to see reality more clearly. It is to remove “the gunk” as she put it, ‘and lift the veil” so we can see our lives with clarity.

I have to admit, in spite of the emotional “gunk” coming to the surface, I am looking forward to this new adventure in meditation.

Text and Image: Lori G. (c) 2008