This post is mostly about what actions to take to stay awake if you are sleepy during a meditation period and want to remain alert. It also briefly explores the question as to whether it is advisable to sleep during meditation periods, from both sides of the debate.
I just finished a weeklong “virtual” home retreat. It was the first time that I had done an extended structured group home retreat like that. Going into it, I was concerned about the power that it might lack relative to a cloistered residential retreat. I ended up though being pleasantly surprised at the power that this retreat had.
A friend asked me about how to use meditation to avoid feeling physical pain. I replied that, yes, classically, there are mindfulness techniques that help us to turn away from and avoid pain, but usually these are just preliminaries to turning towards and fully feeling the pain.
We can get liberated with any sensation: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, subtle or strong, dynamic or static, mental, physical, or of the external senses. The point is how we relate to the sensation.
We can recognize a deeply effective mindfulness technique by noticing that it usually has three aspects to it: concentrating the mind, providing deep sensory richness, and cultivating a calm, steady, equanimous mind.
The technique that I have found most useful for meditation while driving is to simply be present and focused on the sense impressions of the act of driving – to see what is going on around us, to keep our ears open for the sounds of traffic, and to be aware of the bodily feeling of sitting in a car seat holding a steering wheel. We can developing an all-round awareness of what is to our sides and behind us as well as in front, inside our cars and outside, repeatedly releasing wandering thoughts so as to bring ourselves back to the richness of the present moment.
I’ve heard it said that many of the attitudes that spiritual seekers take towards the path of growth can be grouped in two ways. One is to say that all is perfect as it is, and that all we need to do is relax and realize this inherent perfection.
One question that sometimes comes up for people who are learning how to meditate is whether it is a good idea to meditate in the period between climbing into bed and actually drifting off to sleep.
Fifteen years ago, I felt unsettled after reading a transcription of a talk given by one of my Zen teachers, Tenshin Reb Anderson. The piece was entitled “A Ceremony for the Encouragement of Zazen”.
I felt fine about Tenshin Roshi expressing the common Zen teaching that full liberation (and “oneness with the universe”) is not something that we can simply capture or do through our own intentions or efforts, but that we can align with our true place in the cosmos by sitting meditation (called “zazen” in Japanese Zen). What this piece said that I had not heard before, and disliked reading, was the idea that the true meaning of meditation is only realized within the context of a “ceremony”.
A friend emailed me yesterday, and asked “If the Buddhist doctrine of anatta (which holds that the self is an illusion) is true, who is it that is accumulating karma? I’m genuinely puzzled by this, especially as it pertains to the concept of re-incarnation and the Atman (two seemingly incongruent concepts to anatta).”
My friend was asking about karma, which is the idea that we are the inheritors of the results of our actions – in other words, the idea that what we sow, we reap. A common example of karma: if we eat healthily, exercise, and get enough sleep, we will probably be relatively physically healthy, and, if we don’t, we won’t. Simple enough.]
Here is an brilliant excerpt from a talk by master meditation teacher Shinzen Young, discussing a difference between psychotherapy (where we completely deal with one memory percolating up from the subconscious at a time) and insight meditation (where we slowly bring awareness and openness to the whole mind, conscious and subconscious)
In Buddhism, it is taught that, ultimately, liberation comes though insight. It’s difficult for me to explain what “insight” means in this context, but I suppose in simple terms you could call it, seeing existence as it truly is. The traditional teaching, though, is that deep insight usually requires a concentrated focused mind, and that developing concentration usually requires a foundation of ethical behavior.
Shinzen Young is one of my two top Buddhist teachers (along with the inimitable Gil Fronsdal). It was Shinzen’s vision of the Buddha Way that first got me interested in Buddhism in 1989 (!), and his teachings are still, to this day, the most compelling and resonant vision of the Dharma for me out of all that I have encountered.
Over the years, people have often asked me for recommendations for Buddhist meditation resources for beginners. Here is what I have been suggesting: