There Is Always Time Enough (Nine Minutes of Quiet Sitting)

[The shortcut to regular sitting sketched in this post was written with beginners in mind, but experienced meditators might find it useful.]

The most important element in a successful practice is regularity. (We can put off the definition of “successful practice” for now.) To do some amount of seated, inner work on a daily basis is the quickest way to acquire the skills that make it possible to bring about lasting changes in attitudes and behaviors. It is also the key to consolidating the gains made in “breakthrough” moments. Retreats provide opportunities for extending and intensifying contemplative experience, and should be attended as often as possible. However, in the absence of a regular schedule of cultivation, the benefits of intensive practice quickly dissipate because they cannot be sustained or integrated. There is no substitute for daily sitting.

The single greatest obstacle to the establishment of a regular sitting practice is the perception that there is not enough time. A common response to the prospect of daily sessions is something along the lines of “I already have too much to do. Sitting is just one more thing to fit into an overcrowded schedule.” Signs of stress can manifest at the very thought of adding yet another commitment to a long list.

clock running

Some of you will be familiar with an anecdote that is pertinent to the topic. The new student asks how often s/he should sit. The teacher suggests that s/he might start with half an hour, twice a day. The student becomes agitated, and says, “That won’t do at all. I’m much too busy to sit for 30 minutes twice a day!” “In that case,” the teacher replies, “Sit for an hour twice a day.”

The point of this story has nothing to do with time. Rather, it is a way of saying that we all take the concept of time far too seriously. Time is an idea, whereas the sense of time’s passage is a measurement of events in relation to each other, mental events included. Time expands and contracts according to the way we choose to observe the many changes that are always happening and how we feel about them. Ultimately time is just what we think it is. Therefore, when we cease to pay attention to our thoughts and begin to observe the various kinds of change within the flow of sensation—which is what we do when we meditate—the sense of the passage of time is attenuated. We could say that constraints on our time get in the way of our practicing only when we think about them.

A friend’s young son was disappointed because while on vacation they could not stop to visit an amusement park that was located along their route. The boy listened as his father explained that he had to be back at work by a particular date. “I just don’t have enough time,” he said. The boy pondered the matter for a few moments. Then his face brightened and he said, “I know! I’ve got plenty of time. I’ll give you some.”

The objective aspect of time comprises events and their relations, but those relations frequently change, and the perspectives from which we measure them shift with changing circumstances. The subjective aspect of time is marvelously elastic. Despite those challenges, and the social pressure to believe that time is an external force driving us along inexorably, it is possible to initiate a regular daily practice of meditation by adopting a simple strategy, namely, to set one’s sights upon a modest goal to be attained by modest means.

Anyone, no matter how busy, can sit for nine minutes a day. If necessary you can set the alarm clock to ring ten minutes earlier than usual and sit as soon as possible after waking up. There are at least two obvious virtues to such a discipline. First, the early part of the morning is quiet. If you arise before the others in your household, you are less likely to be disturbed. Second, within fifteen minute after rising you have accomplished your task. If you can manage to sit for nine minutes in the evening, too, so much the better.

For some people it will be necessary to drink a caffeinated beverage first thing before sitting; others will find that a warmup and stretching, or a 30-minute walk, will greatly improve their ability to relax and focus. Do what you must, but sit. Set the timer for ten minutes and give yourself a few seconds to assume the posture and settle down.

Bear in mind that, in the cultivation of mindful attention and clear comprehension, quality is more important than quantity. Nine minutes of consistent attention to posture, for instance, is preferable to forty minutes of daydreaming and waiting for the buzzer. For nine minutes, make the effort to stay on track. Unless you are one of those rare “naturals,” you will be distracted at some point, probably by your own thoughts. Don’t be hard on yourself if you find it to be difficult for a while. Perfect concentration is not the practice. Returning again and again, calmly and gently, to the task at hand, that is the practice. Stay with the process for nine minutes and do not concern yourself with the results, which will show themselves in their own good time.

Time Is On My Side The Rolling Stones

Sensations & the Sensorium

The realm of sensation comprises six familiar kinds of phenomena and a few more that often go unnoticed. Each has characteristic qualities that make it possible to distinguish one kind of sensation from the others. For the novice as well as the experienced contemplative it is fascinating and useful to investigate the senses. Let us look at the six primary modes of sensation in turn.

  1. The field of visual sensation is more or less round, highly detailed at the center, which corresponds to the fovea centralis of the retina, and more or less coarse everywhere else. Although the detection of color, edges, texture, movement, distance, dark/light gradation, etc., are functions of sight that are processed in separate areas of the brain, the visual field nevertheless appears as a collection of recognizable entities. Visual perception is often accompanied by the strong sense of an observer who looks out at the world from a position somewhere behind the eyes. That illusion is probably due to the perception of depth that results from binocular vision. The sensory field of sight seems to be outside the body, as compared with the other sensory fields that are felt to be on or in it. This phenomenon sheds light on the tendency to locate oneself (much the time) within the body.
  1. Audition seems to occur for the most part in the vicinity of the ears although attention and imagination will often “move” in the apparent direction of the sound.
  1. Odors are sensed in the nose, and
  1. Flavors on the tongue.
  1. Tactile sensations, which include temperature, pain, itching, and various signals originating in the viscera, seem to be within or distributed over the surface of the body. Other sensory phenomena, such as balance, and the mapping of the body’s parts in relation to each other and the whole in relation to objects in the environment, are seldom even noticed in the course of everyday life.
  1. Thoughts, feelings, judgements, etc., may or may not have an apparent or putative location. (The conventions of folk-topography have them mostly in the head, sometimes in the heart, depending upon cultural norms). Verbalized thought often seems to arise, as represented audition, at an inner “ear.” Certain kinds of thoughts will be accompanied by the mental equivalent of images or sounds. Represented flavors and odors are less common.

six senses ruler

These, then, are the principal means by which we gather information about the environment and our own bodies. But whatever the actual number of senses we may count as contributing to a given moment of experience, the raw data is so great and so diverse that if it were to be taken as a whole, it would be unintelligible. Before that data can be of use to us, impulses originating in the sense-receptors will be shunted about the nervous system, often by multiple pathways, and processed in various ways before they issue in behavior or cognitive events.

Sensory perception is highly organized, and that is the oddest and most interesting thing about it. All six of these modes of sensation occur simultaneously, although it is moot whether one is ever aware of all six with true simultaneity. We are able to distinguish each of the sensory modes from all the others. More wonderful yet, we do not perceive a vast field of chaotic, intermixed sensory phenomena, nor unidentifiable blobs or clusters of visual, auditory, and tactile sensation. We perceive wholes. We perceive things. By the time data of the senses are integrated—and it is a very short time—they have undergone filtering, sorting, pattern recognition and completion, comparison, and labeling, so that we “instantly” recognize them for what they are, except on rare occasions such as when we are suddenly awakened from a deep sleep.

Some of the processes that allow us to recognize things, as opposed to merely sensing them, are the results of evolution, others of learning. They are currently the objects of study by psychologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists. We meditators can fruitfully study them “from the phenomenal side,” as some philosophers would have it.

In “meditation” we can temporarily suspend or undo selected elements of that information-processing network. To put it another way, we train ourselves to disable the higher cognitive functions by increments, beginning with self-consciousness and working our way “down” through the various layers (about which more in future posts) until we are near to the sensory foundation. Then we simply (!) observe.

In the following posts I will describe a few exercises that helped me to get started in my exploration of this terrain.

Why Meditate?

There are several ways we might divide up the field of spiritual science and technology, and one way is according to primary interest. Is the trainee’s dominant aim know, to heal, to feel, or to act?

Depending upon the answer to that question, we can posit four main categories of motivation, namely, the Gnostic, the Therapeutic, the Hedonistic, and the Magical.

Edgar Ende, Die Wartenden

The Gnostic Path comes in two flavors, the Scientific/Philosphical and the Religious/Spiritual, and asks the following kinds of questions:

What is the nature of experience? How does my world come to be known?                                                (Epistemological)

Who or what am I? What is at the root of my sense-of-self? (Psychological)

What exists and what is ultimately real? (Ontological-Metaphysical)

Can I confirm my beliefs and/or the teachings of religious authorities?                                                        (Empirical-Mystical)

The process of investigation devolving from such questions as these is believed to lead to the condition known as enlightenment.

The Therapeutic Path has practical wisdom as its goal. It aims to realize one or more of the following conditions and capacities:

Peace of mind;

Improved mental acuity;

Management of self-hatred, guilt, stress, pain and/or phobias;

The overcoming of compulsions and/or addictions;

More skillful interpersonal and social relations;

Greater compassion, moral sensitivity, and rectitude.

The Hedonistic Path has amusement, pleasure, and entertainment as its goals, which may include the attainment of extraordinary bodily and mental states and visions. The hedonistic adept is a tourist of mental processes.

The Magical Path, or the Path of Power, is concerned with the acquisition of special abilities for purposes of control over the environment and other people.

There is a fifth path, the Path of Liberation. Its aim is nothing less than complete freedom from bodily and mental constraints. Whether or not the realization of that goal entails the permanent loss of consciousness and life itself is a matter of controversy among the several Buddhistic traditions.

Some of us are primarily motivated by the desire to more deeply understand the nature of self-reflexivity as well as the self and its experience. For us it is fair to say that the primary, overall purpose of our work is to find better ways of training ourselves to alter the quality of experience for the better, more or less at will, through systematic development of certain skills. One way of looking at the activities in which we are engaged is as an exploration of natural systems of biofeedback. Following both traditional and experimental instructional protocols, we discover many interesting things about how the mind works, how experience presents itself, how the various psychophysical faculties and their functions contribute to building and maintaining the sense of self.

Getting a Handle on It

We have already made note of the fact that methods of “meditation” vary according to the aim, goal or purpose of a person’s training. Moreover, the various practices can be more or less suitable depending on the character or personality type of the individual being trained. Within a single contemplative tradition there may be several fundamentally different approaches and dozens of variations. In Buddhism, for example, lengthy books have been devoted to outlining the scope of contemplative activity and sketching the many kinds of exercises performed by monks and householders within a single school.

A given person’s meditation practice can be religious or secular, a temporary expedient or a lifetime commitment. We are not forced to choose between one kind of practice and another, one set of motives and another. But it is crucial to be clear about what we are doing and why we are doing it. At one end of the motivational continuum, the bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be, is propelled along the path by the aspiration to fully awaken for the sake of all sentient beings. That resolve is called bodhicitta, the wholehearted commitment to the task of waking up. In mythic terms the project is described as taking an astronomical number of lifetimes to complete. It is not for everyone.

Another sort of person will forego nirvana in favor of samsara with the maximum upgrade. The stressed-out middle manager, for instance, may take up the practice of mindfulness as way of better coping with increased responsibilities and a deflating salary. There is nothing wrong with the decision to settle for less than perfect Buddhahood, provided you are honest about it. The difficulty with striving for the ultimate goal is, of course, that until the trainee realizes for herself knowledge of a very rare kind, she has only the most general and abstract idea of what lies at the end of the path. Not everybody knows what Enlightenment is, wants it, or even believes in the possibility of it. It may seem prudent to reserve judgment in the matter. While the jury is out, there is a lot you can do with meditation to make the problems of everyday life less painful, your behavior less driven, and your moment-to-moment experience more interesting. The panoply of methods is large. There is at least one kind of contemplative exercise for everyone.

Rocks lagoon

Each of the world’s cultural traditions embraces and combines in various ways three distinct approaches to spiritual practice that correspond to three basic attitudes to the problem of life. These three approaches are (1) striving for control of nature through technology, art, and/or magic, (2) striving for self-control, and (3) not striving at all. Each of these three tendencies has its exemplars in religion. The ritualistic aspects of Daoism, Veda, and tantra fall into the first category. Early Buddhism belongs to the second, along with disciplines such as Loyola’s Exercises and most of the varieties of yoga. Latter-day Pure Land teachings go into the third category, together with bhakti-yoga, Islam, contemplative Daoism and Dogen’s “zazen.” A healthy spirituality blends two or more of these tendencies, and we could probably identify types of “spiritual” persons based on the degree to which one or another is dominant.

Of the many factors that motivate people to take up meditation, the most common are probably curiosity; desire to experience altered states of consciousness; the acquisition of power over nature and/or other people; and the desire for inner peace. Among additional reasons to meditate are what might be thought of as subsidiary goals and benefits, of which the following are the most salient:

  1. increased control of psycho-physiological processes, such as respiration, heartbeat and blood pressure, leading to
  2. bodily and mental refreshment through rest, relaxation and reduced stress;
  3. improved performance of everyday tasks due to greater mental stability and acuity; and
  4. better relations with people.

There are many good reasons to take up meditation and few bad ones. Even at entry level the practice of mindful attention and clear comprehension can help us to avoid toxic states of mind—greed, aversion and delusion in the multitude of forms that give rise to human suffering. To the extent that the practice of meditation leads to wholesome states of mind, then any reason to meditate is a good one.

What Is Meditation? (O1)

You are thinking about taking up meditation because you have heard that it can enable people to manage stress, aggression and pain more easily; or because you believe it can deepen your understanding of yourself and life; or because you desire to gain access to a realm of “extra-sensory” experience and altered states of consciousness; or because you wish to become a better person; or because according to esoteric tradition the practice of meditation confers paranormal powers. Or, perhaps, you are one of a very small number of human beings who genuinely aspire to attain nirvana, the condition of being free from all attachments whatsoever. And those are only the more respectable reasons for meditating.

Ensor_Christs_Entry_into_Brussels_in_1889_ptd_1888_detail

A plethora of motives for beginning the practice of meditation has, over the centuries, generated a diversity of methods. Each of the goals listed above requires a slightly different approach. Yet the means employed to reach them share certain common features. They all require a modicum of sustained attention, the ability to stay on task, and a clear understanding of the particular project in which the trainee is engaged. Developing each of those capacities to the requisite degree is a preliminary discipline in itself.

Because the word “meditation” has come to designate all such activities, including methods whose practitioners insist that they are not practices, it is a term both convenient and dangerous. As it happens, the differences among the various kinds of meditation are as important as the similarities. To remain ignorant of them is to risk following a path that cannot take you to your chosen destination. That is true even if you have no destination in mind.

Therefore, the first task is to get an overview of the terrain. Of necessity I will have to define a lot of words, in part because ordinary language tends to obscure rather than illuminate this field, and in part because clear writing on the subject in English is as yet relatively scant. We are only just beginning to develop a vocabulary specific to the description of self-reflexive mental processes. There is bound to be a lot of groping for words, and it may even be necessary to make up a term or two along the way.

The Indic word used by Buddhists when they are talking about “meditation” is bhāvanā. It means roughly the same as the English words “development” and “cultivation.” It applies to the whole panoply of mental faculties, in all possible combinations, from the most ordinary to those that are rarely exercised in the course of daily life. As we shall see, a great many things fall under that rubric. We will make a start at sorting them out in a future entry.