FIVE THINGS TO DO AT THE BEGINNING OF A SIT

stones seated in meditationFIVE THINGS TO DO AT THE BEGINNING OF A SIT

(With a debt of gratitude to Leigh Brasington, who suggested them.  Feel free to modify and alter to suit yourself and your practice – I know I already have.)

1. GRATITUDE.  spend a few moments generating gratitude.  For all that we have to be grateful for – health, life, resources, the teachings and our access to them, opportunity to practice – we all have things we can be grateful for, and it’s good to begin meditating with a grateful heart.

2. MOTIVATION.  Spend some time getting in touch with your motivation to practice.  Why are you doing this? To see deeply into the true nature of reality? To be present to each moment?  To awaken to your own true nature as boundless love?  To develop kindness and friendship towards yourself, just as you are? To life, just as it is?  To know life at it’s essence?   To achieve liberation for the benefit of all beings?  Conscious contact with a Higher Power?  Ease, peace, calm? Whatever works best for you, that can serve as a reminder, should the going get rough, or the practice stale.

3. DETERMINATION. Spend a moment rousing some resolve, some energy, some determination. To stay awake, to stay present.

4. METTA.  Include, at the outset, some time offering yourself some loving-kindness, some friendliness, some unconditional love; setting an intention to be kind to yourself regardless of what arises during your practice. If you like, you can also offer this kindness and wishing well to other beings, or all beings, as well.

5. “Breathing in, I calm body and mind.  Breathing out, I smile.”  This comes from Thich Nhat Hanh and is a good transition to the sit.  It points our attention to the breath.  Spending the initial period of a sit giving attention to the breath is a good way to calm the mind, and generate concentration.  Concentration gives rise to happiness.

Remember:  comparisons are odious.  Don’t compare this sit to any other, or even any moment in this sit to any other moment.  Or you to a projected or imagined “real” meditator.  We are not trying to “achieve” anything, or put preference on one mind-state over another.  Sure, concentration feels great, but sometimes we can’t concentrate.  If the mind is distracted, just note, “distraction” and keep going.  “Whatever one frequently thinks and ponders upon will be the inclination of their mind,” says the Buddha.  When we blame ourselves for what arises during our sitting period, we just reinforce the habit of self-blame and condemnation.  Just be present to the truth of the moment with kindness, and keep going.  Have fun!

GRATITUDE – THE ANTIDOTE TO THE COMPLAINING MIND

snoopythanksI once heard Werner Earhard, the founder of est, say that, if one were ever to come face to face with God and to report back on the experience, one might say, “Well, she’s radiant, and there is nothing she doesn’t know, and she can do anything – – but she’s a little bossy.”  The point being, you can always find something to complain about. And you can focus on that, or you can focus on the good. There will always be both.

This week in our group, we talked about gratitude and its benefits. People who have an “attitude of gratitude” seem to live longer, have better health, and of course, they enjoy their lives more. Negative emotions flood the body with stress hormones, which over time take their toll on all of our organs. Gratitude floods the body with endorphins and neuropeptides like oxytocin and other “feel good” hormones, reduces stress, and is therefore good for health and longevity.

Anyone can be grateful when things are going well. The harder part is learning to be grateful when things are not so good. In the midst of any difficulty, one can always find something to feel grateful for if we look for it, even if its just a breeze on our cheek, the sound of music or the sight of a bird in flight.

Worry is about the future.  Gratitude brings you back to the present moment.

In James Baraz’s course in “Awakening Joy,” he gives some suggestions for developing the gratitude muscle:

  1. LOOK FOR AND APPRECIATE THE GOOD STUFF – KEEP YOUR RADAR OUT FOR LOOKING FOR THE GOOD
  2. APPRECIATE OTHERS, ESPECIALLY IN THE WORKPLACE AND AT HOME
  3. APPRECIATE YOURSELF – YOU BECOME LESS DEPENDENT UPON PRAISE FROM OTHERS
  4. YOU CAN EVEN HAVE GRATITUDE IN THE MIDST OF A DIFFICULTY.  ASK YOURSELF: WHAT CAN APPRECIATE IN THIS SITUATION  WHAT LESSONS CAN I LEARN?

Gratitude towards ourselves is often the hardest. Instead of going over our mental “to-do” lists and seeing where we are falling short, try taking some time at night before you go to sleep to look at the day counting what you DID accomplish, or what kindness you might have shown. Let yourself feel good about the things you did right, instead of only toting up the things you did wrong or fell short on.

Take time to appreciate your sense organs – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin – as well as your lungs, heart, digestive system, endocrine system – – in short – the miracle of the body, heart and mind, and life.

And I promised to post this:

The Top Ten Ways to Become More Grateful

Adapted from Attitudes of Gratitude by M.J. Ryan

1. Focus on what’s right in your life instead of what’s wrong.

2. Take a moment to say one thing you are thankful for at dinner.

3. Say “thank you” to others as often as possible.

4. Especially when they’re annoying or frustrating you, remember why you love your

spouse, kids, and friends.

5. Don’t compare your life to others. When envy arises, ask yourself: how can I create more

in me of what I see in them?

6. Give thanks for your body. What can you appreciate about it right now?

7. When difficult things happen, ask yourself: What’s right about this? Yes, it’s awful, but if

something were right about it, what would it be?

8. Look for the hidden blessings in challenges. How have you grown?

9. Imagine that this day is the first and last of your life. How would you tryou treasure it?

10 Practice daily—a written journal, email to a gratitude partner, etc.

 

IN DEFENSE OF STORIES

Sometimes it seems as if stories get a bad rap in meditation circles. “You’re just telling yourself a story,” a friend will say, or “that’s just a story”- as if the bad feelings we are confiding will go away by labeling them “story,” or as if telling yourself a story is something a good meditator wouldn’t or shouldn’t do.

And yet, our lives are saturated with stories. From the moment we wake, trying to remember our dream, to reading the paper over a cup of coffee, chit-chatting with people at work, we tell and are told stories all day long. Not only do movies and TV tell us stories, so do the 30 second commercials that interrupt them. Sporting events are stories, the Olympics are filled with stories. When we meet friends for dinner, when we get home at night, we tell each other stories. Even as we experience life, we are turning it into a story. We make sense of events of our lives by weaving them into a narrative that has dramatic story structure.

In a fascinating book called “The Story-Telling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” Jonathan Gottschall discusses universality of story among all humans. Part of what distinguishes us from other animals, is that we tell stories. In all cultures, in all times homo sapiens have made up stories and told them. It is as if stories are embedded in our DNA.

There is a part of the left brain whose only function is to arrange the barrage of incoming stimuli into order, to make sense of things. We receive a flood of information from the environment. There is a set of neural circuits whose sole purpose is to detect order and meaning, and turn input into a coherent account.

This part of the brain, according to Gottschall, is called “The Interpreter.” Experiments have shown that this part of the brain will explain anything. If it doesn’t know, it will make it up. If it can’t find meaningful patterns, it will create one. It would rather make up a story than leave something unexplained.

In the 40’s, researchers Fritz eHider and Marianne Simmel made a short animated film, consisting of lines and geometric shapes. Look at it now:

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When subjects were asked to describe what they’d seen, only 3 of 114 gave a an answer having to do with lines and shapes. The other 111 saw soap operas: doors slamming, courtship dances, damsels rescued, villains foiled.

Not only is story-telling innate, so, seemingly, is story structure. There is a universal aspect to all stories, in all cultures and times. Stories are about trouble. Something is thrown out of balance. Conflict is the underlying element to every story. Someone wants something, there is an obstacle to getting it, there is complication, crisis, outcome.

As the body breathes, the heart pumps, the blood flows – the mind tells stories. And we do it all day long. It is a part of who we are. We can no more turn it off and stop doing it than we can stop breathing or pumping blood.

The problem comes when we believe that the story is real, and not a construct, an attempt to make sense of stimuli. The soap opera we superimpose on the stimuli we experience.

Sometimes experiences in our lives are so traumatic, so searing, that they freeze into narratives. Just as a strong emotion will forever link a song with the place we were and the way we felt when once we heard it, so strong emotions will sear into place the decisions we made – about ourselves, about our worth, about life, about our ability to trust – into the narrative construct of that moment. Then when new information comes in, we process it according to the structure we decided in that moment.

Joseph Goldstein has said that at the beginning of his practice, his teacher said, “If you want to see how the mind works, sit down and watch it.”  So if we want to hear the stories we’re telling ourselves – listen.

Some of our stories are in words and dialogue, some in image and picture, some both.  Usually we cast ourselves in the role of hero, victim, rescuer, damsel, outcast – and people the other roles with the people we interact with.  But whether we be victim, hero or outcast, we are inevitably the star; the story is about us.

Whatever story we’re telling, we play them  out in the shower, as we’re driving, as we’re brushing our teeth – we’re often having the same conversations, acting out the same drama, over and over and over again.

We sit down to meditate – and there it is again.  The same story.

And not just once, either.  Over and over and over.

Not even the most die-hard, fanatical comic-con fan could stand to see the movie as many times as we run it in our heads.

Neuroscience tells us that every time we tell ourselves the same story, the neurological pathway goes deeper, and gets more ingrained, until it becomes solid, immutable truth.  This is no story, this is the way it is.

So it’s very helpful, when we’re watching our story-telling mind, to identify the story we’re telling ourselves.  Which role are we playing?  Hero, victim, rescuer, outcast?

Then, perhaps, we can step outside the story.  Maybe switch roles.  What would the story be if the other person were telling it?  What if they were the star, and I was the supporting player, instead of the other way around?

Then we can ask ourselves, is this story true?  It might be real, but is it true?  The feelings are real, the body sensations are real, the emotions are real, but is the story I’m creating from them true?  Is that a brave hero or a triangle?

The point is not to get rid of our stories, we can’t.

But to see them skillfully.  To deconstruct the construct we’ve created, back into its component parts.  Sweaty palms.  Face flushed.  Mind blank.  Sweat under arms.  Increased heartbeat.  Image of a previous time I had these sensations.  That could add up to a story of a social misfit who might as well stay home because s/he’s so socially inadequate. and no relationship has ever worked, so what’s the point of even trying to find a new one …or it could be the excitement of entering a new situation.  Same stimuli – different story.

Jack Kornfield suggests the possibility of dropping out of the story, and resting in the heart.  Let the thoughts and stories come and go.  Rest in the body, the heart, the mystery, of the thus-coming, thus-going.

Look for the intention beneath the story.  Is it to connect?  Or to isolate.  To open the heart?  Or close it.

The great mystery.

Life unfolds.

And we live happily ever after …