Meditation Pains

I’m on day three of my third recovery from a meditation lapse this year, and by that I mean having fallen off of my daily meditation routine. This time around, I’ve decided to extend my meditation from thirty minutes to an hour every morning and night. The first obstacle this change brought was pain.

Pain is no news for me. I remember the excruciating pain from when I first meditated at temple. The abbot, Sayadaw U Kesava, placed me on a wood floor in front of a statue of Lord Buddha, we prostrated three times (Buddham pujemi – Dhammam pujemi – Sangham pujemi) and then he told me to sit and note the passing of my breaths. I suppose he wanted to sit for an hour, but after 40 minutes I was in so much pain that I had tears flowing down my cheeks. I whimpered. U Kesava laughed.

Many years later, I’m much less flexible and the pain is still just as real.

I begin by sitting down on a carpeted floor in Burmese position (maybe I should invest in zafu after all). After thirty minutes the numbness sets in, then the pain, then the extreme pain.

Continue reading “Meditation Pains”

Throwing away your Buddha: Epilogue

I am at my parents’ home for the weekend, and aside from (1) marveling at the amazing interior decoration that they’ve done in the past six months and (2) not meditating for over 24 hours, I’ve noticed that there’s one thing missing. What happened to that statue that I left behind when I moved to Los Angeles?

Apparently, it was never fixed. My dad just chucked it in the trash. In case you’re jumping to any conclusions about my father, it was his mother who inspired my Buddhist practice (as well as that of my brothers). So he knew how important the statue was to me, but I’m guessing he just didn’t want to fix it.

This conclusion is pretty disappointing for me. I would have rather gone with Plan A and placed the statue behind one of the downtown temples. Maybe not so much because it’s a “Buddhist” thing to do, but because there is some comfort in knowing that there’s a time-tested tradition you can follow when you don’t know what to do. Maybe next time…

Sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe sankhara anatta…

Metta Ratha or Bus of Loving Kindness

Culver City Bus

Confession: I live in Los Angeles and I ride the bus.

I don’t do it by choice, I don’t have a car. But I’ve used my ride to work as a daily opportunity to meditate. It’s a 27 minute trip. I sit down, close my eyes, place my hands on my knees and focus on my breath. Indeed, it’s bumpy, sometimes smelly, always noisy. Most mornings, I hear people talking on the phone in Spanish, Tamil or Kannada. But in any event, if I can catch my mind wandering, then I can always tug it gently back to the breath. On some days that ‘tug’ is more of a strong ‘yank’.

Over the past month, I’ve changed the focus of my meditation from the breath to loving kindness. I guess I just wanted to be more of a metta-kind-of-guy. I mean, wouldn’t you want to work next to someone who was always radiating metta?

I’ve had friends for whom loving kindness was the best practice ever. For me (and others too), it’s been a practice that takes some time. When I was younger, I didn’t feel much benefit when I tried it. Still, some of my teachers have been real proponents of metta meditation (“Every morning for an hour, starting at 5:30am!”) and that alone convinced me to fold it into my own practice. I memorized two sutras (this one and this one), and incorporated them into my (sometimes) daily routine. I usually do this meditation just before I go to bed. I’ll admit that on many nights, I tuck myself in and then it goes like this: “May I be happy, peaceful and… zzZZzz…”

Now that I do loving kindness on the bus, this meditation has taken a less traditional structure. I start my meditation focusing metta on myself, and then I focus sequentially on each passenger (and the driver too). I’ve found true benefits. On the bus, I’m always making quiet judgments (“Please don’t sit next to me!”). Metta meditation is the exact opposite (“May you have a great life! May you have no troubles! May you overcome all obstacles!”). How pleasant to use positive thinking to confront negativity at the very moment (or even before) it arises! Bus meditation also has its unique challenges. People are getting on and off all the time, and it’s hard to give each of them their fair share of loving kindness. It can feel like doing mental acrobatics as five people all step off the bus at once!

Finally when it’s my turn to hop off, I stand on the corner and wish loving kindness to the whole bus. May you be kind, peaceful and free from suffering.

May all beings be happy, peaceful and free from suffering!

The Romantic Urge of Meditation

Man wanders lonely as a cloud; meditates.Man wanders lonely as a cloud; meditates.

Like many folks, one of the Buddhist websites that opened a whole new world for me was Access To Insight. In addition to being an incomparable resource for sutta translations and the writings of the Thai Forrest Masters, it also contains some of the clearest and most helpful Buddhist writing for beginners I’ve ever come across.

One such article is John Bullitt’s own Befriending the Suttas. Befriending the Suttas is a great introduction to reading Canonical Buddhist Literature, and offers many helpful points for approaching and understanding suttas. However, the first time I read it, so many years ago, one provision always struck me as odd:

A good sutta is one that inspires you to stop reading it.
The whole point of reading suttas is to inspire you to develop right view, live an upright life, and meditate correctly. So if, as you’re reading, you feel a growing urge to put down the book, go sit in a quiet spot, close your eyes, and attend to the breath, then do it! The sutta will have then fulfilled its purpose. It will still be there when you come back to it later.
(From Befriending the Suttas)

When I first encountered Buddhism I could only vaguely hope to read something that would powerfully move me, and could never imagine being moved to meditate of all things. More than anything it was Bullitt’s italics that sold me, which I imagined being expressed with a grin, a gesture, and a boisterous ‘thumbs up’ pointing towards the sky.

While the most important aspects of meditation happen day to day when we Commit to Sit as my esteemed colleague so eloquently blogged before me, I do wonder about these moments of romantic meditation – when one is either inspired or filled with the sense of wanting to or the importance of meditation – when one is gripped with the need to sit right now.

There are many times in Buddhist legends when meditation is made heroic and inscribed within an epic frame. The Buddha, immediately before his awakening, vows that he will not move from his spot until he has released himself from birth and death, and withstands the myriad armies of Mara in his pursuit. But I wonder if these times of inspired meditation in our own lives can lead to great fruit, or if they are the products of too much mental formation.

I’d love to hear your own stories of inspired and uninspired meditation in the comment section.

Commit to Sit

Commit to SitMy practice of meditating every morning and evening fell apart about a week before the deadline for filing taxes. I’d kept it up every day for a month, but for the past couple of weeks I’ve been avoiding it. All this on-and-off meditation reminded me of one of Tricycle magazine’s cover articles: Commit to Sit.

Commit to Sit is a 28 day vipassana meditation challenge to basically “go on retreat without leaving home.” The goal is to integrate meditation into your daily life. I looked at discussions about it on past blogs and found a wide range of reactions: a starter course that some weren’t going to try out, a month of reinforcing a dedicated practice, or a chance to jump back on the path again. Others dove right in (while others sort of waded their way in).

It’s tempting for me to try out something new and do the Commit to Sit. But this time, I think I’m just going to go back to what I was doing before taxes. All I have to do is set aside the time. In my view, falling off my meditation schedule isn’t much different from when my mind wanders. Just gotta to catch myself and come back to the breath.