The full title of this book is: Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. And it’s the science and philosophy parts of the book that I found most insightful. There is so much within and about Buddhism that are really hard for me to grasp. Emptiness, non-self, just to mention two. This book gave me — for the first time — a tiny, brief glimpse of what these might be. The author explains how natural selection plays such an important role in determining who and what we are. And his explanation of consciousness is the best I’ve come across. This was a breakthrough book for me. I’ll be reading it again. Here are a few excerpts, stripped of all context. Continue reading
According to the app I use to track my meditation practice, today was the 365th consecutive day of sitting. Cool. One year with zero misses. Which means absolutely nothing other than I’ve been consistent in my practice. I started keeping track on November 30, 2014 and ran up a string of 371 days before missing a day (pneumonia). The next run — 271 days — ended while I was out of town attending my 50th high school reunion. Which might be the worst excuse imaginable. And now I’m less than a week away from beating that 371 string. Two days without meditating in the past 1,007 days.
The only day that counts, of course, is today. The app and keeping my streak alive give me a little extra incentive to sit every day but I don’t need much incentive these days. The time I spend in meditation is almost always the best part of my day.
Next milestone? 500 days.
The brain has the ability to generate vivid, life-like images and scenes. It does this seemingly on its own. These scenes can appear in one’s consciousness at any moment and they can be nearly indistinguishable from reality (‘out there’ as opposed to ‘in your head’). These thoughts, in my experience, are mostly beyond ‘our’ control. They happen to us. And while we can’t prevent them, we can — with practice — observe them. See them for what they are. The analogy that best captures this for me is a Fear Hologram Projector.
“Fear” because the scenarios that trouble me most involve fear and worry and anxiety. “Hologram” because these little mental vignettes are so incredibly real. I don’t know why the brain (some brains) persists in creating these but the brain in my head pulls from a lifetime of images and situations and mashes them up with the most negative of emotions and ideas.
It’s like walking down one of the endless passages in my brain and suddenly finding myself in one of these holograms. And the more mental attention I give it, the sharper and more detailed it seems. The hologram seems to need the energy of my attention to project. The fear hologram can loop endlessly for days or weeks. Or longer.
The brain can, of course, create a more positive, pleasant scenario. We like to imagine good and happy things happening. It would seem to be just as easy to create that kind of hologram as the awful kind. If ‘I’ am going to imagine some future, why wouldn’t I choose to something pleasant? The only answer I can come up with is I don’t get to choose. These mostly just happen. They come unbidden.
How do we turn off the Fear Hologram Projector?
Well, we can’t turn it off until we recognize what’s happening. We can’t see the projector when we’re in the middle of the hologram loop. The key here is probably mindfulness. Seeing what is really occurring. Not in your head but in the real, objective world around you (if you believe in such a thing). We might think of this as “experiential reality.” What we see, hear, touch, smell, taste.
When I find myself trapped in a fear hologram, it feels dark, like a movie theater. The images on the screen are more vivid in a darkened theater. And I can’t see the projector because I don’t know to look for it, or where to look.
But if I can be mindful enough to recognize I’m in a hologram — something generated by a (I choose not to say ‘my’) mind — I can bring up the house lights of my awareness! And in that instant I can see that the images are not real. They’re brain stuff. Stuff ‘I’ didn’t choose. Under the bright light of my awareness, the hologram images fade and as my awareness stops powering the projector, the images disappear. My belief, my buy-in is necessary for the hologram to exist.
I’m reminded of lines from my reading about Buddhism and Taoism.
“Am I conscious now? It troubles me that I seem so often to be unconscious. I wonder what this unconsciousness is. I cannot believe I spend most of my life in a kind of darkness. Surely that cannot be so. Yet every time I ask the question it feels as though I am waking up, or that a light is switching on.” – Ten Zen Questions
“Belief is at best an educated, informed conjecture about Reality. In contrast, seeing — raw, direct, unadulterated experience — is the direct perception of Reality Itself. […] Base your actions on what you see, rather than on what you think.” – Buddhism Plain and Simple
The bad news: our brains (okay, fuck it! My brain) have an endless capacity for materializing FHP’s (Fear Hologram Projectors), twenty-four/seven. And a lifetime of material from which to create the loops. Access to all our fears and anxieties.
The good news: it’s pretty easy to hit the house lights, spot the projector and pull the attention plug. If we can stay mindful. Of course, mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean a state of meditative bliss. If you’re rocketing down a black ski slope; lining up for a night landing on an aircraft carrier; or in the middle of brain surgery… you’re probably not trapped on some mental fear loop. And lots of daily, less challenging tasks, can help us stay in the moment. But the mind never stops. You can hit the house lights and pull the plug on the fear projector… and find yourself back in some anxious future 30 seconds later. And this can repeat over and over, day and night.
At the risk of oversimplifying, I am either ‘awake’ or not-awake. Not-awake can take several forms, of course. There the subconscious which is probably what I’ve been talking about. How frustrating that it handles all of those life and death tasks (breathing, heart, etc) without any help from the conscious me…. and still finds time to gin up endless fear and anxiety scenarios.
Then there are dreams — which tend to be more real than the Fear Holograms — but there’s nothing we can do about those. Fortunately, mine seem to fade quickly upon awakening. And I’ve read that we also experience unconsciousness most nights. Dreamless sleep. Would like to have more of that.
I expect to be reaching for the switch to the house lights for the rest of my life. Endlessly pulling the plug on the FHP. But I find some comfort in the belief that “Thoughts think themselves.” I don’t control them. That’s the subconscious, forever and always.
And I have the cushion. Meditation. Observing the mind, allowing it to become quieter (rarely quiet). Awakening, if only for a moment.
“Lead investigator Ivana Buric from the Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab in Coventry University’s Centre for Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement said: “Millions of people around the world already enjoy the health benefits of mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation, but what they perhaps don’t realise is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business.
The research, published today in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, reviews over a decade of studies analysing how the behaviour of our genes is affected by different MBIs including mindfulness and yoga. […] When examined together, the 18 studies — featuring 846 participants over 11 years — reveal a pattern in the molecular changes which happen to the body as a result of MBIs, and how those changes benefit our mental and physical health.
I have some bad habits and a couple of good ones. Perhaps my best habit is daily mindfulness meditation. I sit on a cushion for 30 minutes (sometimes as long as an hour) and concentrate on my breathing. That’s it. That’s my meditation practice. It’s the best half hour of my day.
And I haven’t missed a day for the last 271 days, tying previous record. My longest streak is 371 days. I’ve been practicing meditation for years but didn’t start keeping track of my sessions until November, 2014, when I started using an app called Equanimity. It times my session and keeps a simple log.
That first streak (371 days) was broken due to a bout with pneumonia. I started over and made it 271 days before I missed while out of town at my 50th high school reunion. So now I’ve set my sights on 371. If I can make it to September without missing a day, I’ve not a new streak. And I will have only missed two days in the last 1,000.
I can’t control the quality of my meditation sessions but I do have control over whether or not I sit every day. Which is important to me.
Title quote from Meditation Now or Never by Steve Hagen
After 271 consecutive days of meditation practice, I missed on Saturday. I was attending my 50th high school class reunion and just spaced it off. My previous streak of 371 days (starting on December 4, 2014) ended during a bout with pneumonia (December 5, 2015). I don’t get hung up on the quality of my practice or the duration but I do try to be consistent in sitting every day, if only for 10 minutes. Which is the only reason I keep track of my sessions. As I’ve noted previously, missing once a year might not be a bad thing if it keeps me from focusing on the string instead of today’s session. So today is two in a row!
In the future, people will be prepared to pay for the experience of silence.
I extremely fortunate in this regard. I have a lot of silence in my life. I live at the end of a gravel road, surrounded by woods. No screaming children in my life (at least none I can’t avoid). Barb doesn’t need me to entertain her so I can experience hours of silence if I choose. I don’t take this for granted. The flip side is I have less tolerance for noise than I once did. From the article below (This Is Your Brain On Silence):
“Two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses. […] The growth of new cells in the brain doesn’t always have health benefits. But in this case, Kirste says that the cells seemed to become functioning neurons.”
“There isn’t really such a thing as silence,” says Robert Zatorre, an expert on the neurology of sound. “In the absence of sound, the brain often tends to produce internal representations of sound.
“If you want to know yourself you have to be with yourself, and discuss with yourself, be able to talk with yourself.”
I do a good bit of this kind of introspection and, occasionally, wonder if it’s good for me. The article says yes. Shhh.
I try to avoid talking about meditation. (Those who know don’t talk. Those who talk don’t know.) I’ve been meditating for years. I started listening to guided meditations but for several years now simply sit (30-45 minutes) each day, “following the breath.”
A simple app (Equanimity) helps put me on the cushion every day. Had something of a streak (371 days) going last year when a bout with pneumonia caused me to miss a day. But that’s okay, the only day that counts is today. Today is 500 consecutive (almost) days on the cushion.
I bring this up for those who might have thought about this practice. It’s the best half hour of my day. Here are a few books (and some quotes) I’ve found helpful.
Books on Meditation
- Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change – Bodhipaksa
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki
- Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice – Kosho Uchiyama Roshi
- Meditation Now or Never – Steve Hagen
- Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation – Alan Watts
- Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at the bottom is about _not_ trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.
- (We meditate to realize) “…that things are already perfect.”
- Meditation is about deeply seeing what’s going on within your own mind.
- At the heart of meditation is the intention to be awake. (To experience) Reality as it is,before goals, ideas, or desires sprout. … Meditation is never a means to an end.
- Meditation is a matter of zero or 100 percent. Either you’re present or you’re not. There are no in-betweens.
- Meditation is awareness.
- The desire of one who is awake is simply to be awake.
- Meditate just to meditate.
- Most people who believe they are meditating are merely thinking with their eyes closed. Meditation is a technique for waking up.
After 371 consecutive days of meditation practice (starting December 4, 2014)… today I forgot. Battling pneumonia. Since I was getting a little too focused on my “string,” this is a good thing. The only important practice is the one I do today. I’ve been sitting for years but started keeping track with the help of an app called Equanimity.
- Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharishi
- I Am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaja
- The Tao of Zen (Ray Grigg)
- The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (Alan Watts)
- The Way of Zen (Alan Watts)
- Tao – The Watercourse Way (Alan Watts)
- This is It: and Other Essays of Zen and Spiritual Experience (Alan Watts)
- Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation (Alan Watts)
- The Power of Now (Eckhart Tolle)
- God’s Debris (Scott Adams)