Category Archives: Insight Meditation

Back to Real Life

Colonoscopy, a Peak Experience

As you have read, I went through a real downer after falling down the stairs.  I’m mostly over the episode, the body is mostly healed, and my psyche is on the mend.  Along with the trip down the stairs I got my three year endoscopy/colonoscopy and had a trip to the cardiologist.  I have an appointment with the gastroenterologist coming up for another butt chewing.  Who better than a butt doctor?

The cardiologist wants me to have an echocardiogram to see the extent of scarring on the wall of my heart.  I apparently had a heart attack sometime, and there is some damage.  I don’t remember anything, and my heart function is fine, but they want to check if there could be a problem in the future.

I go to many of Carol’s doctor appointments as well as mine.  I am tired of all the medical offices.  The people there are almost always great, but, the waiting sitting around reading six month old People Magazines.  I guess this gives old retired people something to do rather than sitting in the recliner watching old Law and Order reruns.

All this medical stuff is scary.  A good friend recently had a mild heart attack, but after 40 years of cigarettes, it is seriously scary.  He keeps telling me I need more exercise, but it is mostly projection.  At some level, however, he is right.  He is so scared he devotes much of his time to exercise, mostly pickleball and swimming.  When we have coffee he is usually limping from overdoing it at pickleball.  One of these days his leg is going to fold over backwards at the knee.  Well, maybe not, both of his knees are titanium and don’t fold backwards as readily.

I’m working on diet changes, getting Physical Therapy, and doing more Mindfulness Meditation.  Maybe someday I will start being more mindful when not actually meditating.  That should reduce the falling and tripping.

Other benefits of the meditation are the three refuges:  the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  The Buddha is not some kind of God.  He was a man, albeit a fully realized man who devoted his life to helping others become realized.  The dharma is the body of his teachings along with the wisdom of his followers over the last 2500 years.  The sanghas are the groups of followers meeting to meditate, learn the dharma, and pay homage to the Buddha.

Sangas aren’t unique to Buddhism.  Christians call it fellowship, the body of Christ.  Human bonding is important for living a spiritual life.  Sunday evenings, the Insight Meditation Community of Denver meets in an Episcopal church near downtown Denver.  As always, it took some time for connections to form, but I now feel close to everyone there, even if they may be from California.  In addition, meditating in a group is always special.

Someday science will figure out what the spiritual energy is that forms within and between people following a spiritual path.  The energy is common to every spiritual path.  Sometimes it is called mystical, but there are many who would say they aren’t mystics.  The only thing blocking the bond is hate.  People can feel a bond of hatred, but it is in no way spiritual.

My hate example is the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.  One of their tenets is that God hates.  Do you believe it?  A friend is the Unitarian Universalist minister in Topeka.  Their tenets are love and helping others.  The Westboro congregation is actually at cross purposes with their beliefs.  Their protests have brought people together all over the country to stand in opposition to hate.  Love grows.  Hate destroys.

Aftermath

 

The Infamous Stairs

Falling down the stairs two weeks ago has turned out to be a life changing event.  I knew I was getting old, after all the URL you used to get here is DOFBILL, for Doddering Old Fart.  I have been using it for several years.  But, friends, this last excursion down the stairs hurt.  It still hurts.  I started physical therapy again for balance work.  I haven’t been able to get motivated for doing anything.  Getting here to the coffee shop to write took until noon today.  I am usually here by 9:00 AM.  All I want to do is lay in bed and watch U Tube videos.

I did manage to work with the painters the other day.  Our new stretch of fence looks good.  However, I dropped the tote tray full of painting tools and they all spilled.  They are still on the floor.  I talked to to Carol about all this, and she wisely figured out what is going on with me.

I am in mourning.  I guess I should have figured it out by myself, but I was too numb.  I retired in 2011, I sold the motorcycle.  I knew I was more and more limited physically, but this fall brought it all home.  At 74 years, I am old.

This was reinforced yesterday when I went for my three year endoscopy/colostomy.  I got chewed out by the doctor for not following the rules.  No caffein, no chocolate (!), no booze (I had already quit a year and a half ago), no spicy food, on and on.  I told Carol if I can’t have spicy Mexican food, life isn’t worth living.  What a stupid remark, as she not-so-gently pointed out.

I have limitations, have had them for years.  I just had never gotten to the acceptance phase.  Bouncing down the stairs feet first brought it all home.  In John Mellencamp’s Jack and Diane, he sings “Oh,yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone”.  That line has had residency in my head for two weeks.

Well, the thrill is not gone.  Some of the thrills, however, are gone.  No mountain climbing.  No motorcycling.  No more solo four wheeling trips where I could stay stuck for a week before anyone came along.  I have to let go of risky stuff.  The odds have changed.  I am an old man.

After mourning comes acceptance.  I am in that process now.  The sages say the task of elders is looking inward.  I am doing Insight Meditation for that reason.  My meditations do take me inward, but much of the time I am thinking about outer stuff.  In fact the best inner work I do is at the keyboard.  A good writing session sets the stage for good meditations.

Not all the outer world things have to go.  I can still get into nature.  The sunrise is still there.  The Japanese Beetle season is about over.  I still have a life.  So, what’s the big deal already?  There is my sense of humor, and it is intact.  Part of me knows it is all right.  If I can still make bad puns and turn phrases upside down I still love life.  Carol would probably be happier if I had a more conventional sense of humor.

I haven’t mentioned the most important thing in my life.  The people.  Starting with Carol, my soul mate and the everlasting love of my life.  All we do, all we are, and those morning cuddles.    Her children, who have become my children as well.  All our friends.  The poignancy of losing friends.  The memories.  Yes I can let go and still live fully.

Dukkha

Dukkha is the Pali word originally translated as suffering.  Pali is the ancient Indian language, along with Sanskrit, used to write down the discourses of the Buddha.  Usage of Pali tended to move south to Sri Lanka and South Asia, while Sanskrit was incorporated in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism.

The Buddhist group I attend is  part of the Theravada tradition, most of those bringing it to the west studied in Sri Lanka or Thailand.  There are differences, but to me the differences can be compared to Lutherans and Baptists.  The essential message is the same.

Dukkha is central to Buddhism.  It can’t be precisely translated.  Discontent, craving, anxiety, dissatisfaction, suffering, and hopelessness are typical translations.  I’m sure you get the idea, we all experience dukkha.  The goal of Buddhism is the end of dukkha.  Without dukkha, a person is totally in the moment, seeing life as it is, not how our egos want it to be.   All our lives, we are attempting to shape our world into what we have decided it should be.  Ain’t gonna happen, folks.

Therefore we live lives of striving or despair because things aren’t what we think they should be.  Well, things are what they are.  That’s all.  I want comfort, security, love, time for adventure, and no Japanese Beetles.  I have love, but the other things seem to be lacking somewhere.  Perhaps the best illustration is the difference between pain and suffering.  My knee hurts, my fingers are getting stiff, and I itch.  I’m human, that stuff is inevitable.  I don’t want it to be true.  I get upset when I itch, and the damn Japanese Beetles won’t go away.  I feel discontent.

Insight Meditation is the practice of sitting and following the breath.  Just the breath.  Not thinking about ice cream, the breath.  When thoughts about ice cream or anything else arise, simply return to the breath.  Later, when thoughts arise, observe them without engaging them and watch them pass away.  That itch in the left ear canal, observe it and note it goes away.  Or not.

The key is not getting involved with the itch.  It is an itch over which I have no control.  I want to stick a Q-tip in there, but it won’t help.  The itch does what it will.  Let it be.  Chill, dude.  Am I good at this?  Not so much.  That’s why it is called a practice.  I have noticed some progress, but it is slow.  I don’t get as irritated in traffic.  I am a bit better at putting up with Carol’s Hallmark Channel movies (not really), and I am a complete failure at accepting the beetles.

I have a touch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  There is an ongoing, futile attempt to control one’s environment, so strong it becomes ritualized.  For me, the coffee maker has to be in it’s exact place WITHOUT ANYTHING IN FRONT OF IT.  When a cup is sitting there, my neck and shoulder muscles tense, and I utter a quiet oath.  So what’s the big deal anyway?  Nada.  That’s dukkha.  My day will go just fine if the cup stays there.  Surprisingly, it will probably get moved, and there was no need to get all uptight.

Breathe in, breathe out, watch the reaction, watch it pass away.  The world is as it is.

Let it Be

Let it Be.  “When in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it  be.”  Lennon-McCartney.   

I recently experienced a minor time of trouble.  Call it depression, a post-retreat counterattack, call it what you will, I was not in a good place for a while.  All my old bad habits and thoughts came roaring back.  Usually I keep that stuff at bay with prayer and meditation.  In the past I used alcohol and marijuana, but they only postpone things. 

During the bad period my meditations were all about the unhealthy stuff and I did not pray.  A spiral into depression ensued.  I have enough things to do in my daily life to keep myself from slipping into a major depression.  I just don’t have the time.  In a major depression all I want to do is lie in bed or the bathtub. 

This go-round I watched a lot of car, motorcycle, and airplane crashes on You Tube.  I also watched a lot of the violence scenes from Sons of Anarchy and boxing knockouts.   Fun, huh? 

The weekend went pretty well, we went to a good modern dance concert after dinner Friday evening, did some gardening Saturday, and the Sunday Insight Meditation dharma talk was a good one.  

Monday morning I woke up to a new world.  I felt good, the weather was fine, and I found myself praying and my meditations went where they should.  Why the change?  I have no idea. Maybe my meditation and prayer practice is working.  I am again able to let it be. 

I tend to have some obsessive thoughts about sex or violence. They arise, and if I pray a short prayer, they pass away.  Over time, they have diminished a great deal.  However, during my down periods, they come roaring back.  If I entertain them at all, they stick around.  A sort of feedback loop is generated.  The thought arises, I entertain it, it gets stronger, and I slip into unwise actions.  

What to do when the thought arises?  Let it be.  It, like all phenomena, will pass away.  Prayer helps.  I know people who hold on to unhealthy thinking most of the time.  They suffer.  The more they suffer, the more the unhealthy thinking stays with them.   

To live like this is a decision.  Unhealthy thoughts may arise from the labyrinth of the brain, but holding on to them is a choice.  The choice is self-reinforcing, so breaking the habit is tough.  We can, however, choose to break the pattern.  Not all days are bad days, even for someone in the depths of depression.  We have opportunities to break out. Almost everyone has opportunities to end their suffering.  Still, at times, the choice is to suffer. 

Cycles

The Universe

The universe cycles.  Things arise, then pass away.  It may take a while, a few billion years or so, but the only constant is change.  So it is with my life, change is the constant, it is just that the cycles are shorter.  The big cycle is of course, life itself.  Born, live, decline, and die.  After that, who knows for sure?

Today, it is about my spiritual cycles.  Those cycles can run from weeks to years.  Lately it is weeks.  I am a seeker, and was drawn to Buddhism in college.  I read, thought, but couldn’t meditate.  Now I meditate and after a number of false starts, I can call myself a beginner Buddhist.   Well, a Bhuddapalian, because Jesus is still in my life, but that’s another story and other cycles.

I have made quite a bit of progress, and have experienced varying times when I am actually living in the moment, not thinking about the past or future.  After all, the past or the future don’t exist except in our heads.  A few weeks I went on a retreat of enormous benefit.  18 people at the Y of the Rockies in Estes Park where we formed a bond during a silent retreat.

Cycles.  After the high comes the low.  From being in the moment, I found myself trapped in my past.  Now, for the purpose of survival I  need the past.  I learned things and apply the knowledge for the sake of survival in a fairly hostile world.  I don’t need all the old traumas and mistakes filling my head, however.  I use that stuff to fuel addictions in order to block what is gone anyway.  That’s how the brain works sometimes.  I block with food, various drugs, sex, and depression.

The problem, those strategies wear off and I am back simmering in the cauldron of despair.  Old pains lead to compulsive behavior leading to despair and addiction.  The Buddhist strategy is to devote oneself to serving all beings, clean living, loving kindness, and letting go-detachment.  Lately, not working.  I watch violence on You Tube, eat, fantasize, and avoid drugs.  Letting go?  Hmph.

I had this dream.  I was back at work after a vacation and there was new stuff I didn’t know how to work with.  There weren’t any instructions, of course.  When are there ever instructions about what to do?  So, I just had to cope, even though the boss and an engineer were running around talking about the future.  They weren’t going to be any help.

That’s where we are, isn’t it?  New tasks and no owners manual.  I just have to sit with the situation until a strategy presents itself.  Oh, wait, I just laid out the strategy, didn’t

Mindfulness

Meditation

The ostensible purpose of mindfulness meditation is to stay in the moment.  One does this by watching the breath.  Just watching the breath.  Not thinking about breathing, not planning the week, not obsessing about ice cream.  By watching the breath only, one is in the moment.  Not the past, not the future, just now.

What the Buddhists call the self is that portion of our brain which wants to stay busy.   So, we think.  Thinking about most anything.  Some people have feelings, but I mostly think about feelings.  We are to note the thought of feeling, and return to the breath.  The goal is like cleaning the garage, getting rid of junk and having the other stuff organized so we don’t have to think about it.

Carol and I start our mornings with fifteen minutes of meditation.   We both agree about considering the meditation a success if we are able to watch more than two breaths.  I beat myself up about this.  What the hell am I doing this for if I can’t stay with my breath more than two times.  I must be some sort of failure.  When I complain about this to accomplished meditators, I hear “That is just where you are.”  That is no help, thank you very much.

Can’t they wave their wands and create an enlightenment spell?  Where is Hermione when I need her?  In fact, I am making some progress.  Some mornings I can stay with two or three breaths several times.  During longer meditations I sometimes can sustain for several minutes.  If I can’t stay with the breath, I pray.  I pray for others, I pray for myself, or I just pray with gratitude.

I also use mantras.  I justify them by believing my ADD doesn’t allow me to meditate like normies.  After all, people have used mantras for thousands of years.  I also blame my addictions, as if people haven’t overcome addictions with meditation for thousands of years.

Well, despite my resistance and whining, I am actually getting somewhere with this mindfulness business.  I have tried lots of stuff, trying to get myself somewhat lined out in life, and mindfulness meditation is what works for me.

Now, this mindfulness is not a standalone thing.  It is Buddhist.  That means The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.  They explain why we are always thinking, mostly for no good reason, and provide guidelines for going through life without doing harm.  I dodge them by telling myself I can’t find a clear, brief explanation, as if Mr. Google doesn’t exist.  Well, I do a fairly good job of following them.  Most of the time.

At age 74 I feel I am finally on the way.  What more is there?

Weather

Weather Map

One of my Insight Meditation teachers likes to say everything is what it is.  Well, the weather comes and it goes.  If you are curious about the weather, look outside.  We seem to be preoccupied about the weather.  One of the big small talk topics is weather.  Every local TV newscasts has two segments on the weather.  The national news now has a weather story every evening. 

We always have weather.  It is always changing.  Regardless of what they say, we will get what we are going to have.  The meteorologists can give us an educated guess, but so what?  Look outside.  That is what we have.  Life goes on. 

We are at the mercy of the weather.  It’s hot, cold, wet, snowy, or beautiful.  The changes bring beauty.  We should be preoccupied with the beauty.  My teachers talk about impermanence.  That’s weather, that’s life.  We are born, live, and die.  The storm comes, stays a while, and is gone.   

Weather is not tomorrow, it is now.  Feel the cold, your stiff fingers.  See the sunrise, breathe the coffee smell, listen to the coffee shop chatter.  That is the weather.  Life is now.  Not tomorrow, not yesterday.  Yes, we have to act.  Work, laundry, get the brakes fixed, stop that faucet from dripping.   

The lesson is to feel the weather while stopping the drip.  Enjoy the light when the driver in front of you is texting after the light changes.  You will get there.  He will get there.  The clouds will be gray.  The sun will shine.  It is.  You are.  That’s all.

Winter Blues

Winter

As I sit here in the coffee shop it is a gray January day with a light rain falling, promising to turn to snow.  This is an accurate metaphor for my mood of late.  I’m prone to depression, get treatment for it, but this is probably Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  I haven’t been able to do much writing, and what I have written I haven’t posted.  This is unusual. My goal is to put something up every week and I haven’t come close.   

I used to have two of those lights which are supposed to help, but I gave one away and the other is over the bathtub I haven’t been able to use lately.  Why no baths?  Leaks.  The upstairs bathroom sink cold water faucet started leaking as well. 

For me, things happening around me are often related to the state of my psyche.  Water is also a symbol of the unconscious mind, and leaks are about something important trying to come to consciousness.  I am engaged in a struggle to keep things buried.  Thus, leaks I am slow in fixing, and gloom leading to inaction.  It’s easy to guess how my meditation practice is going.  

My meditations are supposed to have the goal of being totally in the moment-no thinking about the pas, the future, or Donald Trump.  I can stay with just observing my breath for maybe five seconds.  I usually am able to stay with my breath or a prayer for several minutes before drifting off to be with Dorothy and Toto.  I come back to the breath, stay there a while and drift off again.  Currently, I obsess.   

I think the real issue for me is aging.  I am 74 years old. Lifting a fifty pound sack of ice melt salt is hard.  I used to throw fifty pound sacks around.  I cannot go above the second step on the ladder for fear of falling off.  I sometimes cheat and go to the third step, no higher.  My balance is not very good.  I have stayed at the same weight for some time but the muscles are shrinking and the belly is growing.   

I forget stuff.  I have always been somewhat forgetful, an ADD-ADHD symptom, but it’s worse lately.  I am going to have to go back to writing reminders down, a habit I have slipped away from.  I also head downstairs to do something, do two or three other things and head upstairs with the task not done. At least I get some exercise going up and down the stairs all day.

I know this too will pass, but I am tired of waiting

 

 

My Meditation Practice

The Buddha

The Buddha

As I mentioned in the last post, for years I was unable to meditate.  I have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and as soon as my eyes closed my brain would go into high gear.  The idea of meditation is to let those thoughts go so you can be aware in the moment.  For ADD’s, the moment is often chaos, with thoughts leaping from subject to another, or hyper focus, with the thoughts totally engaged on one topic or task. 

After a diagnosis and treatment, I can meditate.  Now meditation is not spending all one’s time in the moment.  At first and often those thoughts arise and with my addictions, they can be compelling.  So, sit, watch my breath, the thoughts arise, I let them go, and they arise again.  It can be excruciating, dealing with all that meaningless thought.  I find a prayer helps me instead of just focusing on the breath.   

Paradoxically, my prayer is Christian.  At its core, Buddhism is essentially atheistic and in my view a psychology, not a religion,  being 2500 years old from a culture soaked in religion, it adopted all the trappings.  I grew up nominally Christian and became a toung-talking holy roller Christian in my forties.  I don’t do that so much any more, but Jesus is in my life to stay. 

I use the Jesus Prayer, an ancient Eastern Orthodox prayer dating back to the desert fathers.  “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The most famous book about the prayer, “The Way of a Pilgrim“, suggests starting with 3000 repetitions per day.  I recite the prayer a lot, but never 3000 times.  I sit, start praying, and time the words with my breath.   When those thoughts rise, as they always will, I return to the prayer.  Those times of being in the moment come, and I drop into watching my breath.  Thoughts arise and I gently return to the prayer. 

I find the moments of stillness are slowly growing.  I also find the poisonous thoughts are diminishing.  When poisonous thoughts about pretty girls arise, I pray for them.  “May she be happy, may she be free, may she be safe”.  Then back to the Jesus Prayer until more thoughts arise. 

The thoughts aren’t just about pretty girls, I find myself planning, plotting, reviewing past mistakes, feeling guilt or shame; being angry, sad, sick, hurting, happy, horny, old, tired, loving, lonely, excited, the entire range of feeling and thought.  All that stuff comes from my past or is about the future.  Thus, they are all meaningless.  The past is gone, and the future is unknown.   

All there really is is the moment.  My brain tends to disagree.  I experience all those thoughts and feelings as real because they are wired neural connections.  The task of meditation is to rewrite those connections so I can spend more time in the moment. 

Now, lots of those connections are important.  I need food, shelter, my long baths, some rags on my back, all the stuff of daily living.  I don’t need Donald Trump or the Kardashians.  I mention those because I was in the  doctor’s office yesterday reading those stupid magazines.  Why didn’t I have my book or just pray? 

I find myself wanting to meditate more.  The toxic thinking is diminishing, although lots of people continue to be prayed for.  I have purged the computers, my library, don’t watch the wrong television or movies, and am able to spend more time in the moment (still not much time, alas). 

Next is some retreats.  Retreats last from one day up.  I have done them in a Christian context and found them useful.  I am looking at attending a four day retreat in the mountains.  There are lots of retreats available, mostly led by Dharma teachers who are therapists or in other helping professions.  Retreats allow intensive meditation with little interruption from the outside world.  I need that.

 

Insight Meditation

Meditation

Meditation

I recently wrote about my struggle with addictions.  Yes, multiple addictions.  It is just now coming out that the root cause of addiction is abuse at some time in the addict’s life.  It is true for me.  I turned to addictive behavior to get a feel good in a life that incorporated pain or suffering stemming from the abuse.  

The mental pain or suffering arises, and I seek to eliminate or blunt the pain with the feel good.  It can be alcohol, food, exercise, sex, tobacco, work, drugs, shopping, gambling, music, or other obsessive behaviors.  I tried most of them, and they worked-briefly.  The pain returns.  Another round starts, but it takes a bit more to drive the pain away as the guilt and shame grow.  The wheel turns. 

The result? I have had a lifetime of suffering with futile attempts to escape.  The addictions have not been all-consuming.  I have a good marriage, a comfortable retirement, many interests to keep me occupied and engaged, and a family I am close with.  I have had years of therapy that helped in some areas, but the addictions remained.  The addictions have consumed a tremendous amount of time and energy.  All this stems from events in my childhood continuing to haunt me. 

Well, that was then, and it is now.  So, why addictive behavior when the abuse happened so long ago?  We store the feelings from abuse in our minds.  Those feelings and sensations stay with us and arise later as suffering.  They exist as neural connections in our brains.  Those connections and stored memories and feelings are not permanent or hard wired.  The brain is plastic and those old demons can be dealt with, the connections altered or eliminated.  

There are a number of techniques, including 12 step programs, cognitive therapy, psychoanalysis, immersion in a religious organization, and other therapies.  Some work, some don’t or are just mental band-aids.

Recent neuroscience research indicates that insight meditation is an effective means of altering or eliminating those old neural pathways.  In many cases, ten or fifteen minutes per day seem to be effective.  In deeply entrenched addictions, fifteen minutes is not enough.  I try to do a forty minute meditation along with the morning fifteen minute session every day.  I also attend two formal insight meditation meetings per week. 

Insight meditation is fairly simple.  Find a comfortable position where you are not likely to fall asleep.  Observe your breath.  It may be your nostrils or your abdomen or chest rising and falling. Just focus on the breath.  Thoughts will arise.  Just note and name them.  Hungry, hungry.  You will find the thought changes or fades, leaving you a moment without thoughts arising.  When they do, note them name them, and observe them changing.     

You will find yourself drifting away, planning, worrying, most anything.  When you notice this, gently return to the breath.  I find it useful to say a short prayer several times until I am able to return to the breath.  At times, it seems like all I am doing is praying, with no stillness.  Other times I can return to the breath right away. 

The process is frustrating at first, because it seems like there is almost no time just watching the breath.  No big. Deal, just keep it up.  You will find those thoughts arising with less frequency and intensity.  You are reprogramming your brain. 

Insight meditation is used in schools, some workplaces, in prisons, and in psychotherapy.  It sometime seems it is the next big thing.  Well, no.  It is a Buddhist practice in use for twenty five hundred years.  It is not really a religious practice.  It is a practice used to get rid of all the mental clutter so one can lead a life free of the suffering all that clutter causes. 

Next time I will illustrate the process with my own experience.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

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