One of the spiritual tools I use is meditation. I first learned this practice from the teacher and other members of the Prairie Sky Sangha (the word sangha means group or fellowship). It meets every Tuesday evening in the Spirit Room on Broadway in Fargo. This group practices Theravada Buddhism, Insight Meditation, or Vipassana. By analogy, I would compare Tibetan Buddhism to Catholicism, with its more elaborate rituals and panoply of gods and goddesses and spirit worlds. Theravada Buddhism is more like the Congregationalists, stripped down to bare essentials. In Insight Meditation, Buddha is viewed as an inspired and revered spiritual teacher but not as a divinity.
Insight meditation centers are found on both the east and west coasts. Renowned national teachers are such people as Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Larry Rosenfeld, and Susan Salzberg. I also enjoy reading Charlotte Joko Beck, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Robert Aiken, practitioners of Zen, as well as the Dalai Lama and Lama Surya Das.
So to get to the real question, how do I meditate? I do this daily, sitting in a chair with firm support (My body is just too old and creaky to assume a lotus position). Sitting is fine, and some people even lie down while meditating, though there’s always a danger of getting so relaxed that one falls asleep. One starts and ends by following the breath. For some people just beginning meditation practice, it helps to count the breaths. If you notice thoughts intruding, you merely start your count over again. I often concentrate on the breath as it passes through my nose; I try to detect its temperature, cool to warm; its quality, ragged to smooth; its length, short to long. Your breath is always with you. Therefore, you can meditate anywhere you can establish inner silence: riding the bus to work, waiting in a doctor’s office or while at the dentist, when first waking up in the morning, and the like. I close my eyes to lessen the stimulation from outside. Early in meditation practice, the “monkey mind,” that is, the thoughts that race by without our summoning them, seem to take up most of one’s time. I have learned to acknowledge the thoughts, saying in my mind, “thinking,” and then visualizing my thoughts as balloons I release. I just gently let them float out of my awareness.
After much practice, you will notice several things: the first is the calm and peace that arise while meditating. When I first reached this level, I would often feel so relaxed that it seemed as if the flesh was going to melt right off my face. Some people see various configurations of colored light bodies, but that rarely happens for me. Instead, I experience a vast emptiness that is somehow full. The “I” that is my ego seems to disappear, and what is left is only awareness, the watcher. My breathing slows down considerably, and I sometimes get the impression that my body is breathing me. When the meditation bell rings after 45 minutes, I often startle because in a sense, I have been so far away. Often after meditating, the world seems sharper, with colors more saturated, and the bark of the trees or crevasses in the snow more sharply etched. I especially enjoy watching the leaves in autumn because they seem to glow with an inner brightness after I come out of a meditative state.
Another aspect of insight meditation is how one handles physical distractions such as pain. In this practice, one is supposed to become utterly present to the pain and to study it. For a time, you stop watching your breath and instead, watch your pain. I ask myself these kinds of questions: Is the pain warm or hot? Is it steady or intermittent? Does it pulse? Stab? Ache? Where is the pain, and how deeply do I feel it? What one discovers eventually is that the pain changes as you watch it. Often it merits different descriptors, and even more often, one sees that the pain eventually vanishes. A foundational Buddhist insight is that everything changes; everything is in a perpetual state of flux.
While there are discernible physical changes from meditation such as a slower heartbeat, lower blood pressure, and a mellow sense of relaxation, for me the benefits are much deeper. What meditation has given me is an abiding sense of equanimity, the feeling that all is well at a spiritual level. When I was a Christian and in times of distress, I used to chant the prayer of Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” But for me that was largely an intellectual exercise. With meditation practice, I truly experience that all is well. And that is a gift that has helped me though many crises, large and small.