Our brains have an annoying way of tuning out normalcy. Regardless of whether the stimulus is a sound, sight, taste or thought the brain’s attentional system eventually tires of it and turns it into a mumbling din. This neurologic strategy makes sense given that humans evolved in a climate of predators and uncertainty. We needed to be primed to give priority to new information about our changing circumstances. When it comes to maintaining mindfulness, however, this mechanism can work against us.
Contrary to the impression of many spiritual-seeking Americans, mindfulness does not bring us to a hyper-alert bliss state akin to an acid trip without the side-effects. The act of practicing mindfulness is to thoroughly experience what is already present. The core of the practice is learning to attend to the mundane. No wonder we go off on so many thought tangents during meditation.
One popular piece of advice for bringing our minds back to the present is self-verbalizing “thinking”, after which we refocus our attention to the breath (or whatever else we have chosen to attend to). This is a gentle, nondualistic way of breaking the momentum of our extraneous story lines.
I am a superhero, flying over the city. I have just vanquished another bank robber! Ah ha! I rock!
In meditation I have to think “thinking” a lot. So often that my brain has gotten really good at continuing to think right through it. “Thinking” has clearly become too boring a cue. I was struggling with this one day when out of the blue I thought “fizzy!” instead. Don’t know where it came from. Just popped out. Fizzy! Stopped my brain dead in its tracks.
Well smack me ten times with the zen stick y’all. What the heck? But the circulating thoughts were gone and I was easily back to finding the spaces between the breath – one of my favorite points of focus.
I’m certain my mind will never respond as thoroughly and strongly to “fizzy” after that first encounter. My neurologic system has already got its number. Oh…You’re just “thinking” in disguise…It was a profound reminder though of the power of the unexpected to bring us back to the now.
I’ve never sat at someone’s death bed, until Saturday night.
My family has been blessed with longevity. As a child, I had the privilege to know three of my great-grandparents and three of my grandparents lived into my adulthood.
The elders of my family have also been fortunate in terms of being healthy. My paternal grandmother volunteered at the nursing home helping “the elders”, many of whom were older than she, until the week before she simply fell asleep in a chair and didn’t wake up at age 85. My maternal grandfather used to go to the gym get on the treadmill and bench press things. With acute lymphoma, he was only ill for three weeks until his death at age 88. My maternal grandmother outlasted them all. She turned 93 last October.
Her name was Barbara – I am her namesake. Grandma lived in an independent living condominium near my parents and played bridge with her friends every week. She went down to the common room each evening to have a glass of wine with her friends. She had her special place on the right end of our love seat when she came to our house for family gatherings. She had more than most of us can hope for.
Nonetheless, Grandma was having trouble remembering things. She needed someone to organize her medications. A few times, she fell asleep and woke confused in the middle of the night. She had to take up a walker and was having troubles with various forms of incontinence. She still missed my grandfather terribly. She admitted to being depressed and she became prone to panic attacks. She was still enjoying life, but things were becoming difficult.
Grandma ended up in the hospital with heart and kidney trouble approximately two weeks ago. The hospital stabilized her and she went to sub-acute rehab, where she appeared to be doing well, but then she became lethargic. Suddenly on Saturday, she became largely non-responsive and she was transferred back to the acute care hospital.
There was a period of time when we all thought she would be stabilized again. Then within a matter of minutes things turned a sharp corner and the doctor was telling us there was nothing more that could be done. I’ll probably end up with a whole separate post on the process of ordering Do Not Resuscitate.
I stayed as long as I was able to that night, which was until about 1:15am. Family started gathering in the room. Despite the number of people, there was a period of time, when we were all quiet lost in our own thoughts. As I was sitting in a chair on one side holding her hand watching her breathe, I slipped into a meditative state.
In one chapter in The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma, I mention the difficulties I have with sitting meditation. While this has been improving with practice, I continue to find focusing on my breath to be particularly vexing. My theory of this has to do with the amount of time I spend teaching others how to use the breath for voice and recovery breathing from laryngospasm and such that my relationship to breathing is mmmmm…messed up.
During this period of time, however, surrounded by my (non-Buddhist) family I felt a deeper connection to the breath than I have ever experienced. Grandma was wearing an oxygen mask that was set to 10 litres (really high). Every inhalation was a struggle. Every breath was a tiny gasp. But it was there. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Through meditating on my grandmother’s breathing, as her body was shutting down my awareness of breath as the connection to life in the now was magnified to the point that it filled my entire consciousness. If I could have breathed for her, I would have.
My father called me at 7:00 am to let me know she had just passed. After I hung up the phone, I had this strange idea that I should have felt something when she left. What I shared with her in those minutes at her bedside were meaningful beyond what I can express. I know that in her thankfully brief suffering, she offered me a gift I can keep in my practice for many years to come.
A lot has been written about “monkey mind” in terms of trying to experience some slowing of the mental verbal-conceptual stream that accompanies our every day life. That the Average Buddhist is so rarely able to experience a gap in the stream, even given daily practice, is a testament to the power of habitual perception.
Another core Buddhist concept is questioning this concept that calls itself “I.” Who is this I of whom we speak? Meditation on this question for even a moment reveals the fundamental emptiness of I. There is no true unchangeable, fundamentally solid self.
The other night while meditating, it suddenly occurred to me how often this wordI surfaces in the stream of thoughts that are the ramblings of my monkey mind. Often, my mind strays to things I believe, things I might teach people, things I might create, then how I would explain those things. I think…I wonder…I know…
I, I, I…
Suddenly, I started hearing this in my head as the persistent barking of a seal. I, I, I…
So, I decided to check this out.
Can you hear them? I, I, I…
It seems then that I not only suffer from “monkey” mind, but “seal” mind as well. Perhaps some day there will be a whole menagerie roaming around in there.
Maybe I should start a missionary project to bring Buddhism to the wild seal population.
…or maybe just keep working on myself first…
Pema Chodron has a wonderful program called Getting Unstuck that I find myself returning to frequently. This is one of those programs I can listen to multiple times and glean something different each time. Shenpa is something she addresses in detail and I have found it to be a wonderful way to conceptualize and understand the moment at which suffering hits me.
Shenpa can be directly translated as “attachment” (in the Buddhist sense), but the true meaning is somewhat more nuanced than that. It is really that feeling of tightening in your mind/body when something triggers a negative reaction in you. It’s not the thing itself, but rather the mind/body’s reaction to it – the sudden grip. Sometimes the grip comes and passes and at other times it stays.
For me, I find that shenpa is somewhat tenacious. Once it settles in it stays, sometimes even after I have forgotten what triggered it in the first place. There is nothing like feeling the gripping and having to stand there and say to yourself, “okay, I was sitting eating my sandwich and listening to music…everything was fine…oh, right there was that news story about…” Interestingly, I have found that going through this cognitive process with shenpa that hits suddenly is often helpful in dispelling it. Not always.
So, one of the mindfulness practices I have assembled for myself is to sit and try to feel where there shenpa is in my body. So, I scan and ask myself, where does it hurt?Once I have found the location in my body where I feel the focus of the pain, I attend to it very strongly and breathe in long, cleansing breaths. I have been pleased to see that it works more often than not. I’ve been interested to note that I usually find the pain centering around one or another chakra. (Most often either the solar plexus or the heart) So, if I’m feeling particularly ambitious, I try to understand what it is about the current shenpa that relates to that particular chakra. Sometimes I figure it out. Sometimes I don’t.
Recently, I have expanded this practice to include some tonglen practice to this. For those who don’t know, tonglen is where you feel the suffering/shenpa in yourself and you imagine some other person or group of people who may be feeling similar pain. You breathe in (visualizing taking in the yucky dark energy) and then breathe out (visualizing having transformed the yucky stuff into pure white light). In this way, you can incorporate a compassion practice into the work you are doing to reduce your own suffering. Adding the tonglen I find has been particularly powerful. The same dissipation comes out of it, but at the end of the process I feel so much more connected to the experiences and suffering of those around me that it makes me feel less alone in the world.
So, that’s what I currently doing with shenpa.
Fish hook picture from: http://mytreetv.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/shenpa/ Nice entry on shenpa with Pema Chodron.
My evolving understanding of meditation is that it is supposed to remove you from your every day mindset and sort of clear the decks for being alert to the things that you may have become numb to. The formal instructions I have received in meditation to date usually involve sitting quietly in proper posture and maintaining focus on the movement of your breath while looking down calmly.
Anyone who’s spent even one moment meditating will soon see the problems inherent in the ideas of even just sitting quietly in proper posture, forget about focusing on the breath. But looking down…maybe no so much. I’ve started examining the ways in which traditional instructions in meditation may actually reinforce the structure of our current lifestyle in a way that it did not centuries ago when the instructions were formulated.
In terms of movement, people used to move a lot more in their daily lives, working making things happen. Sitting still would actually take them out of their typical environment to a different place. Today, most people sit at desks all day or drive in cars. We sit at the computer or by the television for our entertainment. For the modern human, it is energetic movement that is the challenge, not sitting still.
Eye gaze is something that I’ve thought about extensively in this regard. When I think about my typical activities, I realize that I actually spend a great deal of time with my eyes cast downward and close. Reading the music of my students, typing on the computer, reading my email on my iPhone, reading a book for pleasure. Similarly to the movement issue, I believe that the modern person spends so much time with our eyes cast downward, that for us it is looking up and around that is the challenge.
Try this. Keep your head straight forward and just pivot your eyeballs up. Feel the pull at the bottom of your eyes? Those are muscles stretching; muscles that have been in a static contracted state for too long. The more intense the stretch you feel, the more contracted and tight they are.
Again, look back in history. As people moved around they looked around. When there was social interaction, it was live and in a room where there is variable focal distance. To listen to one person or another, your head and eyes would pivot around to guide your attention. Not true for Skype or Facebook chat. It’s not that I think these things are bad, but I do believe that when it comes to meditation, we should be challenging ourselves to do something that is different from what our every day conditioning makes us do.
So, in meditation I look up. Then part of my practice includes not fearing the fact that I am doing things differently than the way in which I was instructed – which is also counter to my every day conditioning and brings me to that place of discomfort from which I can examine life.
Now buy the Book!