A Breathing Meditation Gone Off Track
One evening as I sat down to read, I remembered that a few months earlier I had promised myself that I would meditate daily. Daily had turned out to be just two days in a row, so I decided to try once again to meditate for at least a few minutes. I sat where I was, set my eyes straight ahead on the shelf of books along the wall and tried to rest my mind on my breathing. I managed to stay with my breath for a about a minute when an image came to my mind. Instead of letting it pass by, I fixed my mind on it and followed it, letting it interrupt my meditation.
The image was of me in my chair, with my hair (what there is of it) flowing back as if I were sitting in a great wind. This was because my chair and I were affixed to the surface of the earth which was rushing me around its circumference at one thousand miles per hour as the great globe made its daily rotation. I had better hang on to that chair!
Next, from a great distance, I saw myself and the spinning world roaring in a great circle around the Sun. It was as if I was riding a tilt-a-whirl at a carnival—I was revolving in one circle which was revolving in another, larger circle. But this tilt-a-whirl was tens of millions of miles across!
As if that wasn’t enough, I could see my chair and I, along with my earth and my sun circling at an unimaginable speed—along with billions of stars—around the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. What a crazy ride!
Just as I thought how dizzy I would become from all this spinning in multiple circles (well, probably ellipses, now that I think of it), my imagination failed. Then, sitting quietly with my book, I realized that I had not actually felt my hair blow back as I sped through space in my chair. The air was moving at the same speed as I and the earth’s surface. We were all in one system. And I did not get dizzy as I rushed around earth’s center—my inner ears felt no motion as I traveled because earth’s gravity held my ears in the same system.
Similarly, the earth’s orbit around the sun caused no sensation in my body, nor did the solar system’s giant swing through the Milky Way. I am very grateful that—in my physical body—I don’t get dizzy from all the spinning that nature involves me in.
Nevertheless, I do get dizzy—and on a daily basis. It is a dizziness not of the body, but of the mind. A dizziness that has its origin not in the natural movements of the earth and other cosmic bodies through space, but in the actions of human beings.
Here is what I mean.
The Daily Barrage
Every day seems to bring a deluge of information. And every hour seems filled with demands on my time and changes in direction. How about you? I’m sure your hair doesn’t blow back but, if you are like me, your brain can feel pretty wind-blown. Your body doesn’t feel its twenty-four hour dash around the earth’s core, but at day’s end, isn’t your head spinning at least a little with undigested information and unfulfilled intentions?
One Year’s Twists and Turns
And the past twelve months have brought the world multiple terrorist attacks, melting glaciers, dangers to democracy and the fear of nuclear bombs! Doesn’t it seem as if just one circuit of the earth around the sun has dragged us through a hundred grave threats to peaceful life on our planet?
The Context of History
And what bout the larger context of time? Our immersion in the present seems to leave us out of touch with the past and incapable of finding our bearings in the big picture. While we are caught up in our busy-ness, time sweeps onward: democracies strengthen or fail, science and technology rapidly advance, and the very earth—it’s soil, it’s water, it’s air—swiftly change for the worse.
If you are like me you have to confess to having a feeble understanding of our place in the long history of humans. Just as the sun sweeps through the galaxy unaware of its place in the cosmos, we busily occupy our little patch of time in the twenty-first century without understanding our place in the great flow of time.
No Wonder We Don’t Seem to Fit
Well, I seem to have brought us to a place of many questions and no answers! Nevertheless, I think this might be a clarifying thought—
We humans have physically evolved over a long period of time within this giant, always moving system. We feel comfortable in our physical realm (for the most part anyway) because we have naturally adapted to the movements of our bodies in our physical home over tens of thousands of years. The problem is that we human beings have created a complex and risky society that we must also live in—and we have done it in just a few hundred years. I think our minds have a lot more evolving to do before we can skillfully manage life in such a world. And it would sure help if the societal structures did some healthy evolving as well.
And maybe there is something we can do to feel mentally more at home in our world.
Three Words from Pema Chödrön
When I began writing this reflection, I didn’t know whether I could come up with anything but more questions. Now, as I consider how these thoughts began with my attempt to meditate, I recall three reminders I learned from Pema Chödrön. They are simple guides to use in meditation and may at first not seem relevant. They are: (1) be precise, (2) be open, and (3) be gentle.
These three thoughts for meditation might offer helpful parallels for handling the dizzying realities of modern life. First—as I remember them—here is a summary of how the reminders apply to meditation:
- Be precise.Focus on something simple and readily available. In the case of breathing meditation, it is your breath—always right there, always part of you. To be precise, you might focus on the gentle rise and fall of your abdomen, or it could be feeling the air exit your nose as you exhale. Being simple and precise means you will easily remember where to place your mind. Pema Chödrön says that, in breathing meditation, about 25% of you consciousness should rest on your breath.
- Be open. Be open to all sensations and thoughts that come to you. These could be a worriy about the future, an idea for a project, awareness of a sore neck, or just about anything. The trick is to notice the sensation or thought without chasing after it. If you chase it, it will quickly fill your mind (as did the image in my story above). This is why you need to sort of tether a small part of your mind to your breath—then the rest of your conscious mind can simply observe. This openness should also apply to people or actions that come to mind. You want to experience each feeling or thought without judging. You just watch.
- Be gentle. Be gentle to yourself as you meditate. It is difficult to rest your mind on your breath for more than a few seconds. When you notice you have lost touch with your breath, when your mind chases something, or for that matter any time you notice you are not “doing a good job” at meditation, you will tend to judge yourself for your “mistake.” Instead of judging, try to be gentle and totally accepting of yourself. et go of any harsh thoughts by quietly returning your attention to your breathing.
You can probably see how helpful these reminders would be if you want to meditate. If you already use these ideas—good for you!
But how in the world could these reminders apply to the dizzying rush of life when you are right in the middle of it all? I think like this—
- Take a breath. Whether your thoughts are about the excess of tasks and decisions that face you in one busy day, or about whether your life has meaning—take a deep breath. Take several breaths. Pay attention to the simple flow of air in and out of your body. As you move your mind from the demands of the day to your breath, you will experience life—your life—more simply, and in the present moment. As you take time to precisely notice your own breath—and feel it—the testy worries of the day will press more lightly on your mind.
- Cultivate openness. It may seem like a strange suggestion to cultivate openness toward the hundred tasks and calls of the day, toward the multiple threats heard on the news, or to the long term prospects for life on earth. We more likely want to shut things out in self defense. But, by openness I don’t mean we should accept everything and consider no changes or solutions. I mean let’s relax our minds and let the information in. Let’s not cringe and avoid reality. Realize that life for humans has always been very risky and often painful. Let’s know it is not my or your job as individuals to fix everything. Each of us is just one tiny observer of the big picture of life. And, if we are truly open, we may intuitively sense the one or two things we can actually do to make a difference.
- Be gentle. If you are like me, you feel you should be better at handling life’s countless details. And you feel you should have more knowledge about what is going on in this busy world. For most of us, feeling this automatically means feeling guilty too. It might help to simply tell yourself not to feel guilty, but I find it helps more to think positive gentle thoughts about myself. I like to silently say: “Rod, you are mostly still a boy. You are okay just as you are. I am gentle toward you.” Being gentle just means reminding yourself that you are good. It helps to be gentle in our thoughts about those “other people” too.
My thoughts here are not a magical solution to the dizzying pace and multiple challenges we humans experience in this world. But if we are to live in such a world—and not totally lose our balance—I think just slowing down to breath, letting ourselves softly open up to the realities of life, and carrying gentle thoughts for ourselves and for others will give us some balance. Doing so might even help us bring a few steadying changes to the world.
If we work at it, maybe our minds will eventually become as skilled at living in this world as have our bodies.Share: by