Friday, January 21, 2011

Getting Started

Beginning a meditation practice has it's real challenges. As I was sitting this morning, towards the end I began to reflect on the most essential aspects of what keeps me going. The single most important condition, both in my opinion and experience, is to develop a friendship with the practice.

What does it mean to establish a "friendship" with the practice? When you imagine friendship, what is the felt sense that comes up? For me it is warmth, kindness, happiness, joy, laughter, and love. When I go in the morning or in the evening to sit, the first things I say to myself is that I'm going to spend time with my friend. That friend is me. What a cherishable thing it is to have this time, right now, to be with my self! The very first thing I do when I sit is to check in. How does the body feel? Is it comfortable? Is there an ache? If something is hurting there is compassion for that hurting: "oh, my dear friend, you're hurting! That knee is really bothering you." One must develop compassion for themselves, especially at this early stage of meditation, because a neat thing begins to happen. The love in our heart opens. A connection between joy and meditation establishes itself, and if there is no sense of reward then the motivation to meditate will fall apart. It's simple Pavlovian psychology. But it's more than that, too.

We need this kind of love for ourselves early on because it provides a firm basis for compassion. As we go on in the practice of meditation, a lot of things will begin to come up -- a lot of things we may not like about ourselves. Having a sense of compassion and love will make our acceptance, and our letting go of these old worn-out patterns, easier and more fulfilling (and complete!).

As you read into the buddhist literature on meditation, you might come across the concept of anatta, or no-self. At this point, things can get really confusing and it's remarkably easy (and common) for us in the west to totally misunderstand and misinterpret this part of the teaching. My advice as your getting started is to not concern yourself with this aspect just yet. Anatta is a highly complex concept, one that tends to require a lot of practice, prior insight, and years of development to begin to understand.

For now, just focus on loving yourself. Cherish the twenty or thirty minutes you have to pay attention to your own body, mind, spirit. Give it love. Give it the healing beauty of a silent mind. Breath deeply into it. Feel its every feeling. Naturally, the experience of pure gratefulness will arise. And tomorrow when you might try telling yourself "I can't do this, what's the point, I don't have time, I'm not getting anything out of it," remember the feeling and it will naturally draw you back.

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tuning the Lute

Meditation is hard. Sitting, in one place, doing nothing, is perhaps the single most difficult thing to do.

But every day, I try it again. And every day, I am met with new challenges, and new discoveries.

The mind is different every day. Some days it's living in the past, others, the future. Some days there is a remarkable quietness to the mind, and when I close my eyes to begin watching the breath a wide open stretch of space expands. Everything feels deeper, sacred, beautiful, rich and full yet empty... like looking into the night sky. Other days, the mind is chatter chatter chatter, nonstop about this and about that. The breath goes out the window. Space has shrunken down. I'm suffocating in my own claustrophic mind.

Every day is different. Every moment is different. But all of it -- the good, the bad -- is just more discovery to delight in. More ways to know the self. Some habits I've come to realize: I think a lot about what others think of me. I examine myself from many different vantage points, a lot of the time. 'I wonder how so-in-so viewed me when I said yada-yada the other day.' Or, 'I hope so-in-so sees me this way, and if I do this next time maybe they'll like me even more.' I rework past experiences in my mind like they were clay. All of this working to support an ego that I know, deep down, doesn't really exist. Such wasted energy!

But when the mind quiets down, and this secret space begins to open up.... I'm so wonderfully intriqued. What's down there? It's exciting to come across, as if the door to Narnia is in my mind somewhere. It flickers in and out, like a candle, like a plane doing a touch and go. I'm learning to steady myself in this opening. It is so easy to lose the balance. Effort must be just right. The energy applied subtracted by the relaxation of letting go. It's such a precise configuration. Try standing on the tips of your toes like a ballerina for an hour. This is what finding the open expanse of the soul is like. Or, as Buddhas put it, learning to tune the lute. Not too taught, not too loose.
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Friday, January 14, 2011

Something from Nothing

Our Nandina has this beautiful ice formation dripping down its berries at the moment.

This winter reminds me a little of New York... It still has a large part of my heart.

I whipped up a little something from nothing today. Roasted golden beets with sauteed swiss chard, smoked gouda, pepitas, and an orange vinagrette. I'm finally beginning to catch on to my creative side with vegetarianism. I get full, this is for certain, but not heavy full. My weight has gone down a solid seven or eight pounds, and stays right where it is now. This is the lighter side of where I was when I was eating meat. I take it as a healthy sign. And, to be honest, vegetables are just so much more interesting!

I've registered for Bhavana's women's retreat this summer and am already looking forward to it. Five days in the Virginia forest, meditating with women, living in silence and simplicity. It's going to be wonderful, and challenging! This is a wonderful article I read this morning on what I expect to be the greatest challenge, yet greatest bliss I'll encounter there in the summer. Ajahn Passano's dhamma talk today on encouraging the falculties of enlightment is bringing me much inspiration on these quiet, winter hours of solitude.
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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Winter Wonderland

Sledding when you're 27 and 33 years old is not as easy as it was when you were 10.

But the snow is just as beautiful.

Root vegetables have been a huge part of our sustenance lately. I've perfected the art of roasting beets and turning them into delicious little salads with arugala and spinach.

This season has also seen the perfecting of my now infamous White Bean Soup. I'll be incredibly generous with you and share the recipe:

Sautee two tablespoons of garlic with one overflowing tablespoon of smoked paprika, many sprigs of thyme, and two cans of rinsed white beans with olive oil. Once this has all cooked, slowly begin adding vegetable stock. I like to get up to 8 cups of liquid.. Add cherry tomatoes sliced in halves. Simmer for three hours. Throughout this process of sauteeing and simmering you should be adding personalized amounts of salt and pepper, and almost an entire little plastic bulb of lemon juice.  You should shrink your soup down to 4 servings by this point. Throw in a splash of cream. Add whatever chopped green you would like. My favorites are mustard greens and fresh kale. Serve a few minutes after adding greens so that they are still good and chewy.