I really like Whole Living magazine. In this month’s issue, Amy Gross has a nice article — “Breathing Lessons” — on the why and how of practicing mindfulness meditation. An excerpt:
The disasters we imagine in our future torture us more than reality ever can. As Eckhart Tolle teaches, “Right now I’m OK.” The more fully you inhabit now, the more OK you are. Now is home base, the best spa, the best medicine. Meditation is training in getting to now.
What makes it powerful is what makes it hard: you’re dismantling two of the oldest reflexes in the world. The first is: Running away from pain. We spend our lives clamping off negative reactions. Meditation invites these reactions to the surface, where they can get the attention they’ve wanted from you all these years, and ultimately dissolve. You see you’re not destroyed. ”Acceptance is the key,” Joseph [Goldstein] says. ”Resistance locks in the feeling.”
The second reflex is: Clinging to the pleasant. We want what we want when we want it; when we get it, we hold on tight. That’s as futile as trying to hold on to a rushing river. Meditation offers infinite opportunities to open our grip. We see that we don’t lose anything by letting go — we’ve just quit an exercise in futility. Peace, according to the Buddha, is the greatest happiness. And isn’t that what you said you wanted?
The results are in: the vegetable-and-grain fast was a success! Not without imperfections, of course. But that, my dears, is life.
When we last left off, it was almost dinnertime on fast day.
For that meal, Matt and I made a very tasty farro-and-bean soup (which likely was more complicated than a typical fast might allow, but it was vegan, so I rolled with it). By the time the soup was ready, we were so engrossed in an episode of LOST that I did eat in front of the T.V. But at least I ate slooowly in front of the T.V.!
By the end of the day, I was a little calmer, a little happier, and felt better than when I began.
This morning, I broke the fast with scrambled eggs and potatoes. As I ate, I happily noticed myself chewing more slowly and paying more attention than usual to the task at hand: eating breakfast.
Folks, I must say: I think these one-day fasts on the new and full moons are pretty neat.
They are healthful and doable. But perhaps the most wonderful thing about them may be the opportunity they provide, twice a month, to reset one’s focus and recalibrate one’s attention and appetite.
After this fast, slowly, over the next few days, I’ll fall back into my old patterns. Without a doubt. I’ll begin to eat more and more quickly. I’ll read a book while eating. I’ll take in cups of coffee and forkfuls of ham and mouthfuls of cupcake.
But that’s all okay. Because in two weeks, I’ll get another opportunity set an intention to eat differently for a day. Because fasting, like meditation, is a practice in mindfulness. You set a goal; your mind wanders; you gently guide yourself back — without judgment, without reprimand. And you do it again. And you do it again. And slowly, wonderfully, you grow.
Remember: small changes, repeated, set the course for big ones.
Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun, and a gem. This little book of hers I bought two years ago. Just now, I am moving through it. There is so much good in it! Several excerpts are likely to appear here. This is the first:
Another slogan says, “All dharma agrees at one point.” No matter what the teachings are — …any instruction of sanity and health from any tradition of wisdom — the point at which they all agree is to let go of holding on to yourself. That’s the way of becoming at home in your world. This is not to say that ego is sin. Ego is not sin. Ego is not something that you get rid of. Ego is something that you come to know — something that you befriend by not acting out or repressing all the feelings that you feel.
Whether we’re talking about the painful international situation or our painful domestic situation, the pain is a result of what’s called ego clinging, of wanting “me-victorious.”
Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view, with the temperature and the smells and the music that you like. You want it your own way. You’d just like to have a little peace; you’d like to have a little happiness, you know, just “gimme a break!”
But the more you think that way, the more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what’s outside your room grows. Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door. When you do go out, you find the experience more and more unsettling and disagreeable. You become touchier, more fearful, more irritable than ever. The more you just try to get it your way, the less you feel at home.
To begin to develop compassion for yourself and others, you have to unlock the door. You don’t open it yet, because you have to work with your fear that somebody you don’t like might come in. Then as you begin to relax and befriend those feelings, you begin to open it. Sure enough, in come the music and the smells that you don’t like. Sure enough, someone puts a foot in and tells you you should be a different religion or vote for someone you don’t like or give money that you don’t want to give.
Now you begin to relate with those feelings. You develop some compassion, connecting with the soft spot. You relate with what begins to happen when you’re not protecting yourself so much. Then gradually… you become more curious than afraid. To be fearless isn’t really to overcome fear, it’s to come to know its nature. Just open the door more and more and at some point, you’ll feel capable of inviting all sentient beings as your guests.
- Pema Chödrön, from “Bringing All That We Meet to the Path” in Start Where You Are (1994)