Meditation Mechanics: A Class to Guide Your Practice

Meditation Mechanics: A Class to Guide Your Practice

I tend to emphasize the art of meditation — the creativity and exploration required to navigate the mind and determine what methods and structure are best for our meditation practice, how to most skillfully meet the moment. But meditation is also a science, and I recently created a four-week course to explore its scientific/technical dimension. In the class we develop practical, concrete skills for working with the mind by studying specific techniques for settling it onto the meditation object and keeping it there, beginning with techniques for getting to the cushion every day without fail. The techniques aren’t fancy, but if they are applied skillfully and consistently, they can be effective in keeping the attention on the present moment. The goal is to engineer our practice so that it operates most effectively, so that we waste less time on the cushion and spend more time actually meditating.
The class draws from the teachings of several of my influences, including Ajaan Geoff and Jack Kornfield, but the biggest influence is Culadasa, the neuroscientist, teacher, and author of The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science. Each class includes instruction (with hand-outs), meditation, and discussion. The course is suitable for those looking to recharge their established practices or those with fledgling practices who are ready to commit to daily meditation. I’m teaching a second round starting on Sunday, May 15, and this time, I decided to keep it small (six people) to allow more time for feedback on each individual’s practice. Let me know if you’d like to join!

Some Corner Where No One Will Find You

Some Corner Where No One Will Find You

Physical solitude, exterior silence, and real recollection are all morally necessary for anyone who wants to lead a contemplative life,

wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation. Every spiritual tradition encourages times of solitude, introspection, and prayer or meditation. The Buddha and his monastics spent three months each year in a “rains retreat”, during the time of year, in that climate, that a period of intensive meditation made the most sense.

This is that time in the US. The short days, with much of nature in hibernation, suggests a return to “exterior silence”. To create the right conditions, Thomas Merton had this logistical advice:

Although it is true that this solitude is everywhere, there is a mechanism for finding it that has some reference to actual space, to geography, to physical isolation from the towns and cities of men.

There should be at least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of other men.

Formal retreats have created such rooms for us, allowing that essential untethering. Here are are few suggestions for retreats in California, depending on how long you have to sit:

Retreats rejuvenate our practice. They are a balm for our overtaxed minds and nervous systems, and they’re essential to the development of Insight. But they should not be used as confirmation of our dislike of the world.

We do not go into the desert to learn how to escape people, but to learn how to find them,

Merton reminded us. Retreats are not a rejection of the world, but an affirmation that we operate best within it if we take precious time for silence and solitude.

May you find some corner where no one will disturb you. May your practice set you free.

 

VisionLA – Climate Action Arts Festival

VisionLA – Climate Action Arts Festival

To coincide with the 21st Conference on Climate Change happening in Paris right now, the visionary Cheryl Slean and Guy Zimmerman have led the creation of the VisionLA ’15 Climate Action Arts Festival happening through December 11, all over Los Angeles. There are close to 100 performances, screenings, concerts, workshops, and family-friendly events; a big art show at Bergamot Station; and a closing celebration of music and dance from String Theory Productions and poetry from LA’s poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez. Most events are free. All support the mission of “calling for a swift response to the climate crisis and creatively envisioning LA’s sustainable future.”

By engaging the international dialogue on climate change, imagining creative responses and building momentum for change, artists and storytellers have a crucial role to play in shaping a better future.

 

Cheryl and Guy are both dedicated meditation practitioners. When I spoke with Cheryl a couple of months ago at the height of the festival’s creation, between a long day of meetings and a long night of work, I was struck by how seriously she cleaved to the Buddhist principle to work without attachment to outcome. Her excitement and devotion to the project, and her acute understanding of the problem of climate change, were evident. And yet, she understood that she could not control the outcome of her labors, and to try to do so would be to suffer. She was working ardently, ceaselessly, to create the festival, and still managing to position her mind to let go of the results. It was inspiring to witness, and the results, it appears, are spectacular.

The festival is a creative and hopeful response to a daunting problem. Go!

The Body of Fear

The Body of Fear

Lori Pond, one of the members of Stillpoint LA’s meditation group, has a new photography show at Gallery 825 in LA entitled Menace. The dark, moody images of animals, many of which have glowing white teeth, asks us to reflect on what scares us and why. What we might notice, looking at images that trigger such a visceral fear response, is just how deep fear runs.

Fear is different from other emotions. In A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield‘s classic book on Buddhist meditation, he suggests that fear underlies all the mind’s contracted states: restlessness, lust, doubt, frustration, etc. In a way, it is more fundamental than happiness or anger or even grief, because it relies on a basic delusion about who we are. Fear lurks underneath other emotions, sustained by the assumption of our “small sense of self” (Jack’s term): “This false or small self grasps our limited body, feelings, and thoughts, and tries to hold and protect them. From this limited sense of self arises deficiency and need, defensive anger, and the barriers we build for protection. We are afraid to open, to change, to live fully….” Fear is the expression of these false selves in need of protection. Jack calls this orientation toward the world the “body of fear”.

The alternative to the body of fear is the part of us — what we might call “wise mind” — that understands that such an orientation of protection is bound up in suffering. The very grasping that the small self takes to be essential is the root of suffering, not the external dangers it perceives.

On the relative level, there is obviously a body that is susceptible to injury, sickness, and violation. By acknowledging the root of our fears, we don’t stop feeding ourselves or taking common-sense precautions to keep our families safe. But the more deeply we examine the false self on which those fears rest and see the suffering inherent in its grasping, the less we are ruled by fear. The less we identify with the small self, the less we suffer, and the better our discernment of what is actually necessary to keep ourselves safe.

As with all aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, the invitation is to notice this root of fear, and its alternative, in our own experience. What I like about Lori’s exhibit is its open-endedness. It invites such noticing, just as the Buddha did, invites us to participate fully in the exploration of our fear. Like a good poem, the exhibit leads us by the hand to the heart of a difficulty, asks an important question, and refuses to answer it. Eye-to-eye with something wild, something unpredictable, we are not given any outs. The photos don’t offer the material comforts of fences or locks or alarms, or even the deeper comforts of faith or love. Instead, the exhibit leaves us there, staring into the face of a dog or a bear, animals made strange and unnerving by light and shading and by our own primal associations. Gazing into those faces, I felt, first, that I was looking at something foreign, something other. But as I forced myself to keep watching, it seemed I was also, somehow, looking at myself.

Sit Around Town

Sit Around Town

If you live in the Los Angeles area, you can meditate with a group every day of the week somewhere in the city. Here’s a very partial list of places to sit, on both sides of town.

Westside
Monday: Evening Meditation – Against the Stream in Santa Monica – 7:30pm
Tuesday: Lunchtime Meditation – UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica – 12:30pm
Wednesday: Evening Zazen – Hill Street Center in Santa Monica – 7:30pm
Thursday: Lunchtime Meditation – Hammer Museum in Westwood – 12:30pm
Friday: Evening Meditation Group – with the Insight Center in El Segundo – 7:30pm
Saturday: Morning Beach Sit – with InsightLA in Santa Monica – 7:00am
Sunday: Morning Meditation & Dharma – InsightLA in Santa Monica – 10:00am

Eastside
Monday: Evening Community Sit – with InsightLA in Los Feliz – 7:00pm
Tuesday: Sunrise Meditation – Kadampa Center in Hollywood – 7:30am
Wednesday: Evening Meditation Group – with Stillpoint LA in Eagle Rock – 7:00pm
Thursday: Evening Zazen – Zen Center of Los Angeles in Koreatown – 7:15pm
Friday: Morning meditation class – YogaWorks in Pasadena – 9:00am
Saturday: Afternoon Sit – Against the Stream on Melrose – 5:00pm
Sunday: Morning Meditation & Dharma – Against the Stream on Melrose – 11:00am