First and foremost, I do not claim to be anything or anyone but myself. What I mean by that statement is that I have no special expertise or knowledge in the areas of meditation and meditative practice. Like many of us, I am a practitioner without a degree, so to speak, in meditation. That being said, I have experienced meditation in a number of ways and some of those ways have been very valuable to my mental health.
Meditation, as traditionally taught and practices, involves sitting on a floor on a cushion for some period of time. At its root, meditation is a practice of recognition; recognition of your thoughts and emotions as they sweep across our fragile mental state. Once recognition occurs, then the practitioner can begin o play around with methods for understanding where the root of these thoughts and emotions is. As I am sure you have heard, at the core of this recognition is the knowledge that thoughts and emotions are, at their root, of empty essence. They are not tangible, hard and fast things that are permanent fixtures. Once we become aware of the fact that our thoughts and emotions are NOT ourselves, we are freed from the kinds of suffering that comes from those same mental formations. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.
The thing is, sitting on a floor on a cushion is just one way to find the kind of recognition and awareness that meditation offers. We can, for example, find similar experiences in a variety of different methods that help us reach that same place. As the teacher say, of course, nothing really compares to just sitting and not moving for an extended period do time AND I can offer my experience as a kind of balance to that one idea about meditation.
One Method for Students and Ourselves
As a History teacher in middle and high school, I’ve had the chance to use these methods with students to help them become a bit more aware of themselves. For example, I’ll often find, when teaching 8th grade, that some boys will often poke, touch, or physically mess with other boys in a class. Some of that behavior is so automatic that they don’t even know they are doing it! Getting them to have awareness of their bodies is something that teachers have done for millennia. We don’t call it meditation practice nor, I imagine, would meditation teachers refer to the method of changing a behavior in class as a meditation practice. Nonetheless, here is one alternative method to sitting meditation.
I’ll often call for a break in class to reorient the room. Then, we will, together, walk in circles in the class, saying nothing. I make it a kind of game….stay an arm length apart, don’t touch the person in front or behind and just walk, slowly, around the room….I’ll gradually speed up the exercise. The students start giddy and silly, and as the speed increases and the rule about not touching gets harder to accomplish, they concentrate on NOT touching and on walking quickly. Soon, the room is silent expect for the patter of feet on the ground. Heavy breathing happens and in some students they start to sweat a little. After a couple of minutes we slow down the pace, walking ever more slowly until we are barely walking. Then we will find our seats and sit quietly for another minute or two.
Once the students are seated, a quiet calm extends over the room. Of course, it doesn’t last long…in 13 and 14 year olds NOTHING lasts very long and if it does their minds and bodies go crazy. Still, in that moment of calm I notice that the deed is done; they are now aware, for a minute, of who they are in their bodies.
Mild Exercise as Meditation
Moving or doing a physical activity is ONE method for entering a meditative state. It can be as simple as walking slowly and then faster and slower, changing speed and movement, until our thoughts are slowed and our minds are more clear of rising thoughts and emotions. It’s that GAP, that moment when we slow down, that the thoughts are still and we can feel the space between constant thought and emotion. It’s the very moment of awareness of that space where we can recognize the concept of emptiness. In that moment, we are not nothing, we are, in fact full. Full of potential and awareness, ready to take the next step in our practice.
Strenuous Exercise as Meditation
If you have ever played a sport competitively, there is a point in which your thinking mind turns off and you are one with the game, the team, the moment. It takes a bit of training and effort to reach this point. The training is really in getting your body to move in the ways it needs to to accomplish the game. So, in basketball, learning the shooting motion or dribbling the basketball without loosing it, those two actions, when learned well, allow the player to no longer think about the action. It’s in those moments that our minds empty of thoughts and the action becomes automatic. The trick is to stay in that moment of empty thoughts and emotions, and recognize that it is present. That moment in time is part of that same idea of recognizing the GAP between thoughts and staying with it.
With practice, the space between thoughts can grow to the point that any form of movement can bring about this experience…the space between thoughts…and expand the awareness of the present moment.
My Experiences with Meditation
I use many methods for meditation. When I first stepped into the stream of Buddhism, I read Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, he said,
“If while washing dishes we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us… then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes’. What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes… If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands.”
Meditation can be, in fact, washing dishes, vacuuming the house, mopping the floor, mowing the grass, weeding a garden, or any other daily act we do. Meditation can be the focus of any act in our lives.
What this all means is that rather than thinking of meditation as a separate activity, we bring the meditation to any activity. In those moments, meditation is an ongoing, constant state of mind rather than a cordoned off moment sitting in a shrine room in our house or attending a meditation practice in a place other than our own homes and outside of our lives.
Meditation becomes the source rather than the addendum. It can be the center of our lives.
For me, I ride bicycles. It’s my chosen form of exercise. I ride and ride and ride. It serves multiple purposes for me; to be exercising as a means of maintaining my body and a place of silence and stillness. A couple of weeks ago, I entered a complete state of meditation to the point that I had ridden many miles and they passed in a moment. In a blink of an eye I was miles down the rode in a state of mental stillness. I was surprised when I broke the meditation and found myself somewhere far down the road. Probably not the BEST thing to do on a crowded street, but on a country road outside of town, a perfect chance to just be in the moment. Riding my bike and doing nothing else.
Be well, my friends. Take good care of yourself and each other.