(From the essay That which moves the spirit)
“Once you find deep solitude and calm, there will be a great gladness in your heart. Here finally is the place where you need neither defense nor offense – the place where you can truly be open.” – Deng Ming-Dao
I have just now returned from an hour of walking meditation at the labyrinth below the retreat centre. The stones are set in a community park, overlooking Snug Cove and the North Shore mountains across Howe Sound. I can’t imagine a more fitting place in which to ponder the depth and grandeur of life. And yet, my walking meditation asks no questions, and I focus only on letting all my thoughts go and experiencing the world moment by moment. I feel the stones uneven each time I raise and lower my foot, the cool air moving around me, my breath in and out at the tip of my nose. I become caught up by the rapid movements of a small bird on a bush beside the path, startle at the deep cry of a raven, and note the sound of cars starting up down the hill and rumbling away. At times I wonder when this walking will end, but then dispel that impulse and slow my movements further to allow each sensation to sink in and travel through me. In a world where there never seems enough time, I am learning there are ways to make each second an eternity.
I arrived at this most recent exploration of meditation via my academic studies. While writing a paper on the modern development of neuroscience in the spring of 2013, I couldn’t help but notice study after study confirming the benefits of meditation, and in particular the effects of meditative practice on the so-called “plastic” brain. It wasn’t my first exposure to the concept of meditation as a positive practice in relieving stress and anxiety – I have unsuccessfully attempted daily practice at other points in my life. But this time around I was piqued by the idea that meditation was good for more than just stress, and very likely could play a role in rewiring the brain to make it more resilient to the effects of aging, aid in the development of intellect, and additionally boost immune system response.
This interest in the science of the brain lead me to a course on spiritual enlightenment, of all possible turns, because I believed it was in that structured learning environment I would find the support for meditative practice and the discipline to approach it daily. In early September 2013 I resolved my main work for this course would be exactly that – a time in each day which would be reserved for some form of meditative practice.
At the outset, I promised myself that meditation would not become one more thing on my to-do list, that I would not approach it as a chore, nor would I set expectations with regard to length or quality of sitting. I wrote in my journal at the time, “I want my desire for meditation to grow naturally rather than imposing upon myself another set of goals.” Though not wanting to put pressure on the situation, I did recognzie that finding the discipline to practice every day was key and I found myself encouraged by these words by Deng Ming-Dao:
“In order to start, we must make a decision. This decision is a commitment to daily self-cultivation. We must make a strong connection to our inner selves. Outside matters are superfluous. Alone and naked, we negotiate all of life’s travails. Therefore, we alone must make something of ourselves, transforming ourselves into the instruments for experiencing the deepest spiritual essence of life.”
And so I have done, meditating almost every day for the past ten weeks. In the beginning, I sat for ten minutes per day, though quickly moved that to fifteen and then twenty. Now I sit for thirty minutes at a time and when I can manage it, twice a day. On this retreat I am in practice for three hours per day between various sitting, lying and walking meditation, plus community worship.
Early on, I was fortunate to discover that a Ch’an Buddhist teacher in my workplace was offering eight weeks of meditation classes on Thursday afternoons. This would seem coincident with my desire to start meditating, except it turns out that she has offered this course for years, and it only came to my attention because I was receptive. The timing was good in any case, and so I found myself learning a very formal style of meditation which includes eight-form moving meditation, sitting meditation, walking and lying down meditations as well as prostration. In the beginning of my practice, I complemented this formal teaching by listening to guided meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn which included bodyscape, breathscape and lovingkindness instructions. I ended each session at home by reading poetry or spiritual instruction from my personal library. For times when I could not be at home with enough time or energy to meditate, I planned out where I could go downtown to have 20 minutes without interruption. My workplace has an all-purpose room that is not used after work, and SFU Harbour Centre has an inter-cultural space which made it convenient on the days I could not be in my home.
In making meditation a priority for ten weeks, I hoped I would experience some difference in my being, but at the same time was prepared for nothing to happen at all. After all, it’s just sitting. Disciplined sitting, yes, but it is a practice of doing nothing, with no expectations, and no goal! None of this comes naturally to me, and I had to overcome my doubts in order to get started. Especially in the beginning when I could only sit for ten minutes and my thoughts were continually returning to the pettiest arguments and grievances I had with the world. But after only a few days, this annoyance turned out to be my first insight: It wasn’t just in meditation that my mind was running over old wounds, it was every time my mind drifted at all. Interesting. No wonder Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to this process as “dropping in” on oneself.
My hopes for meditation are for an end to the negative voices, the nagging and the doubt inside me. I have always wished for a calmer disposition, a more tranquil mind and way of being in the world. I’m a high-intensity personality, after all, which has advantages in this world but frequently leaves me exhausted by my own actions. While I did not enter this practice in order to change my core being, I am interested in pursuing any practice that introduces a greater sense of ease and grace to this life I am living. I did not expect that a mere ten weeks of meditation would bring me to some fundamentally new place in my existence, nor has it, though I do believe I have seen a glimpse of that calmer and more thoughtful way of living I seek.
I am living the paradox of internal change through my practice, which seems vast and infinitesimal at the same time. There are the small periods of calm which I have introduced to my days by sitting apart from others, alone with the present moment. And then there are the openings to sensation that occur when I bring my attention to bear on some part of me, a sensual awakening that at times seems overwhelming. In general I believe myself to be less emotionally reactive, and I have noticed that I regain my equilibrium faster when my emotions are aroused. I have also noticed that in some instances my emotions come much more freely, as though I am shedding layers between myself and the world. On more than one occasion both in and out of practice I have been suffused with a feeling of wholeness, joy, and connection that is greater than me. In a recent group meditation, I had the experience of a great warmth entering and leaving through my breath, an expansion of my being and a lack of physical constraint that was entirely novel. These are states I have rarely known before, and not with such sustained intensity when they have arisen.
There have been instances of greater visual perception after sustained meditation, such as the labyrinth walk cited earlier. When I left that hour of meditative walking to return to the retreat centre I was suddenly in command of a whole range of visual detail I had not been aware of before. This effect is brief, though I believe that with mindfulness practice it is a state I could more frequently attain in daily life.
And then there is this small change which belies a much larger shift underneath: for the first time in my life I have spontaneously stopped chewing my fingernails and they have grown quite long, so much so that I have to trim them. This was not an intention, nor did I put any attention on this longstanding bad habit (having given up trying to quit long ago). I simply noticed one day after about five weeks of practice that my nails were growing and healthy for the first time ever. Given that this is a neurotic impulse largely attributed to stress, I would deduce from this small clue that my stress levels are at least slightly lower than normal despite being in a very busy period of work and social life.
Ten weeks is such a short period on which to reflect when it comes to a practice as ancient and varied as meditation, and I feel that there is much depth and learning still to come. Whatever else arises from daily meditation, I believe the attitude of building a life with more ease to be worth the challenges – the discomfort, boredom and frustrations – that are a part of any daily practice. I intend to continue daily meditation, without making it a chore or goal, and with an openness to whatever lessons it continues to bring.