Saturday, March 29, 2008

Thoughts on meditation

Thoughts on a regular practice of mediation (these comments may make more sense if read from the bottom up)


Sampling the internal rainbow and sky

I can easily see that my thoughts are temporary. Fleeting, contingent, chance sends them this way and that. I have more trouble keeping the temporary nature of my feelings in mind. I have a tendency to think that a beautiful scene or an irritating event is external and the beauty or irritation is an objective fact. Then, I began to practice seeing my emotions as temporary, ready to change. I have made some progress doing that. I also have been seeing my emotions as the changing colors of a mood ring, a display of different shades and tones driven by the interaction of internal states, perception and external states.

3 spaces we are always in

Mary Coelho helped me with the imagining of us in cosmological space. You know, the big space, the one where the nearest star other than our sun is 4 or 6 light years away. Light is said to travel at 186,000 miles a second. Each second! You can't imagine how far it can travel in a whole year. Google says it is about 5.8 trillion miles. Scientists are working on questions of how this whole universe got started and how things moved along from the beginning to an "us" being here now. It is certainly a story worth pursuing. Seems fair to say that the cosmos is THE space, the space that contains all other spaces. Maybe.

But there are other spaces worth thinking about, too. The next one to come to mind, with the help of Deepak Chopra and others, is the sub-atomic space. We are flesh and we park our flesh on chairs and seats and move ourselves about by means of bones and cars and planes and ships. But, the whole array of objects is thought to consist of atoms, which are thought to consist of sub-atomic spaces and particles. The atom is mostly, I mean nearly all, space. Little solar system models are often used to depict an atom and its space but they mislead. We see balls rotating around a center. It might be better if we saw bits of light zooming around a central light. The subatomic space that is not just space (whatever that is) is thought to be bits of energy.

So, our flesh, our bones, our chairs and seats, our cars and planes and ships are nearly all space with tiny bits of zooming energy embedded in it. We seem to be composites of nearly nothing! How can we be that??

These two spaces are plenty fascinating, depressing and frightening enough. But a third one has gotten a grip on my imagination lately. This one has only been puzzled out in the last 30 years or so. It could be called the geological space - the earth space or situation we are in. Say that the earth is a ball about 8,000 miles in diameter. We live on its surface. What's inside? A core of molten metal! Hot metal! Temperature of around 4,000 degrees Centigrade. That is around 7200 degrees Fahrenheit. (Again, thanks, Google). 1800 degrees is enough to bake pottery or cremate a human body so the interior is plenty hot. But we live on the surface, in a layer of "water" and "land" about 30 miles thick. Mary said she has heard that an apt comparison is to think of a pan of boiling milk. You know the "skin" that forms? That little skin, sitting atop drifting continental plates, is our only home, the only place we can live!

Maybe we are the pride of the universe, the top of the line of creation, but we seem to be in a fairly precarious place in it. We seem to be in 3 precarious spaces all at the same time!

Being mindful sounds good but....

The in-term in many circles is "mindful", usually meaning "being conscious of" as in "I am mindful of the panther in the corner." Clearly taking that bus ride through beautiful country is less pleasurable, less moving, less inspiring if I spend it watching the Ravens play on a tv set in the bus instead of being mindful of the scenery.

It is fun to try to be aware of what I am doing when I am doing it. Thich Nhat Hahn writes of being mindful of doing the dishes. Walking meditations are often attempts to stay conscious of every bodily movement while making it. As we get older and more accustomed to our lives, we often find ourselves doing more and more automatically, without even any memory of doing what we just did.

Yoga has made plain to me the value of extreme concentration on a particular movement that has been painful recently. If I do it slowly enough, and stay mindful enough, I can sometimes make the movement without pain or make it just to the limit before pain. Sometimes, slow concentration enables me to move that way repeatedly, each a bit closer to normal speed and "be cured" rather quickly with the help of mindfulness

Clearly, mindfulness can increase the appreciation of ourselves and our lives. However, we can't be mindful of everything. I am listening to Prof. Francis Colavita discuss the psychology and physiology of attention and he speaks of "selective attention" being an important phenomenon in understanding animal life, including human life. Each of our senses is bombarded with many possible inputs all the time and our brains have the ability to tune out much of what we deem to be unimportant or irrelevant at any time. Colavita speaks of an experiment training cats to pay attention to complex patterns of lights going on and off. The cats were doing better than expected with the learning but then it was discovered that one of the good performers was totally blind! That led to the discovery that the cats could hear the elements that created the lights making sounds when turning on and all of them paid attention to the sounds and not at all to the lights.

There is always more that we could pay attention to than we have capacity for. We must always select. We might select in a way that later we deem mistaken or inferior. But we simply cannot be mindful of everything.

Value of muscles and motion

My wife told me repeatedly that I would enjoy yoga. But, after all, what does a wife know? Still over time, part of my brain has learned to pay attention to what she says. At least, remember it and get back to it for consideration from time to time. When a colleague and a doctor both chimed in on the same subject, I decided I needed to give it a try.

I felt I knew meditation to some extent but I found that the physical motion of yoga (or probably tai chi, too) tended to leave me in an inexplicably good mood. No special reason for that as far as I could tell but it did so and regularly.

I have a scholar friend who knows the classics of Eastern philosophy and he says that simply sitting in a chair and carefully tensing all one's muscles, systematically from the feet to the scalp, will prepare the practitioner for a meditation session. So, I guess even such limited use of the muscles can assist in getting the whole body-mind together and into a meditative and coherent state.

I have enjoyed Dr. Candace Pert's works "Molecules of Emotion" and "Your Body Is Your Unconscious Mind." She is a scientist and was pivotal in developing the current understanding of brain receptors for particular chemicals. Subsequently, the same receptors were found in other parts of the body. Once she was lecturing on their distribution throughout the body and a member of the audience from India pointed out the locations were similar to the Indian idea of chakras. So, I guess our bodies really are part and parcel of the same thing our minds (and brains) are and motion and muscles would naturally contribute to our minds and meditations.

Origami or vomit

I am reading Charles Seife's "Decoding the Universe." It's about information science. I am up to the part about the information measure in a channel of communication or in as limited set of spaces for symbols. A piece of paper and a pen offer a great many possibilities beyond the number of characters that can be printed from a word processor in a given font. Humans can use the paper and pen in many ways. I might send a message by tearing the paper in two or twelve. I might fold it into an origami shape. I might eat the paper and send the resulting vomit as a message. Don't underestimate human ingenuity.


I have been away for a month. I practiced meditation rarely during that time. I find it is always good for my feelings and clarity of mind, as well as a calm and friendly acceptance of what life develops but sometimes, I don't get to it.

I wanted to mention "intensity" as one mind-state. When meditating, I like to keep my eyes focused on a single spot. Quite a few years ago, I developed the habit of looking for an intersection of perpendicular lines. The thickness of the lines is often such that the effect is of black roads intersecting against lighter space. I consciously chose the positive-positive quadrant, the quarter of the intersection with a rising line on the left and a line extending to the right, the portion of a Cartesian x-y graph for positive numbers in both directions.

So, I find a convenient spot and keep my eyes on it. I have heard that our eyes actually jiggle at some amazing speed, such as 600 oscillations per second, and that if they didn't, we wouldn't be able to see very well. Still, I have the sensation of very steady, very constant vision, focused on a single tiny spot. I find this concentrated focus to be helpful in maintaining a mind internally focused on zero content. I suspect that it is the emptiness and cessation of thought is what gives me the impression of being in contact with all my thoughts and all that there is in the world.

Sometimes during meditation, I am visited by an urge to intensify. Without moving my muscles or my gaze, I develop a magnified intensity of concentration, a temporary lessening of all impulse to move or change or deviate. For a short three seconds or so, my vision feels magnified so that the focus of my gaze is seen in an enlarged form. It feels zoomed in on and feels that way strongly even though no change has taken place in my body or muscle tension.

Holding hands

The Dalai Lama was quoted recently that he meditates daily for about 4 hours but that he does not just sit mindlessly for that time. He didn't say a great deal about his practice but he did say that he plays internal golf. He feels the rise and fall of his emotions. Some days, the positive emotions win and some days, the negative ones do.

Pema Chodron, in her Good Medicine audio, advises the practitioner to "sit with" emotions in much the same way one would sit with a friend in pain or grief. I have been getting the feeling of holding hands gently with myself while I am in the midst of emotions. Sitting with a friend, one would develop a comfortable feeling of acceptance and understanding of the feelings but not actually be in their grip.

Again, getting a little distance from one's internal state enables observation, acceptance, and perspective on what is happening to one's mind and feelings and life without being overwhelmed by them.

Computer enhanced appreciation?

I think that if we try to program something, the activity gives us a different view of the idea or activity. So, I hope somebody will invent an appreciation program, application or machine what will enhance a person's appreciation of life, relatives, possessions, accomplishments, etc.

For a start, maybe an inventory. An inventory of all one's clothes often shows more shirts, shorts and other items that the owner would have guessed he had. An inventory of what one has read, or can remember reading, or suspects was read, can show some surprising patterns. How about an inventory of friends or places where one has traveled? Maybe a column for the "current value" of the item or book or friend with an automatic total at the end, just to see what it all comes to.

Maybe some blogger or communicator can write some code for 5 or 10 evaluations of an item or an achievement from the view point of others. Daniel Gilbert's "Stumbling on Happiness" emphasizes that most people over-estimate their uniqueness and under-estimate the similarity of reactions of others to their own reactions and judgments. Getting a small range of evaluations of an achievement from others might help us see that we are better and better rounded or skilled than we can see from our own personal, up-close viewpoint.

Quickly now

I am a fan of time, especially of duration. I would like to be able to hold my breath longer, to get my homework more quickly. I have this inner drive to get things over, to be able to view them as completed and done. I can see that extending that to include my life would not make sense but parts of the interval of my life often seem like candidates for quick completion to me, at least until I catch myself and reflect.

There is quite a literature concerning “distributed vs. massed practice”, on the question of whether several shorter practices sessions of say, typing, or memorizing, will be more effective on fewer sessions that are longer. From what I have seen, the question does not seem to be unequivocally answered but distributed, shorter sessions that are more numerous often come out at least a little bit ahead in various sorts of trials and tests. That is good from the view of an antsy person like me.

I would rather do several shorter sessions, each of which is more quickly “over” than one long one. I know from experience that I will spend much of the long one wondering when it will end. In addition of having a fondness for reaching deadlines and goals, my life is full of choices and interruptions. I find I can fit shorter periods into the mix more easily than I can find and use a long period.

So, the question emerges: how long is long enough? How short is too short? Of course, the question might be trivial or essentially meaningless. It does seem to matter psychologically and socially whether we grab a bite on the run or sit down together for a relaxed and friendly meal. However, in terms of calories and such, the quick bites and the multi-course meal are the same and food in is food in. So, maybe the same applies to meditation. One answer comes from “QR: The Quieting Response” (1982) by Charles F. Stroebel, M.D. Stroebel advocates making use of 6 seconds to scan the body and its state and to use the time to find and release stress.

I know that it is very American to try to speed things up and maximize output and take such fast food approaches but they can shed interesting light on our experience. Increasing the number of instances when we try to go into a meditative state is clearly one way of increasing our practice. The durations and frequencies approach each other asymptotically as I have more and more one minute sessions. I could get to the point conceptually where ALL of my minutes are used for meditative practice whether I think of them many sessions or a single long one.

Stroebel advocates using the moments waiting for a traffic light to change or for a ringing phone to be answered. Practicing going into meditation at such moments definitely increases our awareness of the possibility of meditating. That, in turn, increases the chance we will see our thoughts and feelings without be caught up in them.

Take a moment in the next traffic light. Keep your eye on the light but turn off your thoughts and scan for tension. As Eckhart Tolle says, wait and see what your next thought or feeling or image is. Observe it and sit with it while you wait for green and the car ahead to move.


A joke that can be found in various places says that the Zen practitioner said to the hot dog vendor, "Make me one with everything." Meditators are often interested in being in tune with, in harmony with, aware of all there is, the whole universe. That may not really be possible but it is the goal and it sometimes feels the goal is (temporarily) achieved.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that being aware of all and the connectedness of all allows one to see a garbage heap in a flower. The flower disintegrates into garbage and then into soil to raise another flower. The garbage disintegrates into soil, then into a flower and then returns to garbage.

William Blake (1757-1827) – English poet, artist and writer wrote

Auguries of Innocence

  • To see a world in a grain of sand
    And a heaven in a wild flower,
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
    And eternity in an hour.

Clearly, Blake was thinking along the lines of being one with everything when he wrote these famous lines, quoted from the Wikipedia. Sometimes, I think the most important feature of human thinking is the ZOOM feature that allows us to “see” a billion years or a nanosecond, a single atom or a supernova. The particular level of magnification we are using at any moment is a big factor in what we perceive and what we don’t.

Somewhere there is a book written by a Dutch schoolmaster which shows Blake's ideas graphically. The first picture shows a girl in a chair holding a cat. The next picture zooms out from her ten times as far away. The next zooms out ten times that distance away. After zooming to the outer edges of the universe, the next picture again shows the girl in the chair. Then, the next picture zooms in to only 1/10 the distance. A second zooms goes into her arm only 1/10 of that distance. Finally, the zoom is inside a single atom in her arm. The whole trip from the outer edges of the universe to the innermost spot in her arm is covered in 43 zoom steps.

Mary Coelho has pointed out that our imaginations seem to be a bit more able to "see" wide expanses and epochs of time than to "see" sub-atomic spaces and distances. But they are all there and worth "visiting" from time to time.

Views from the French bus

Meditation, for me, is all about trying to rest and re-orient my attention. Attending to nothing at all and noticing when I am thinking in order to return to not thinking for a while gives me more awareness of where I have placed my attention.

The situation is beside captured by my experience of a bus ride through beautiful French and Italian countryside. I was the leader of the group and responsible for day-to-day upkeep of financial records. The ride provided a chance to get all my records up to date and temporarily relieve my worries about getting behind and failing in my duties. But, the countryside was very beautiful and I would probably not be coming this way again. Much like life, eh?

I could see that I might end the day with balanced books but no experience of the views, the one-time chance to see those places, those scenes.

No matter what, we cannot attend to everything. There is always something going on behind me or in the next town or on the other channel. I am always going to pay "opportunity costs" for choosing this path or that target for my attention. Meditation enables me to feel blank, to notice what I am attending to and to switch or desist if I want.

Up from the murky depths

A friend said she had resumed more formal and steady mediation. She stated that one can't learn from the universe until one is still enough to hear the teacher. What a lovely phrase!

It brings up the connection between thinking and holding an empty mind. I noticed in the talk area of the Wikipedia article on meditation that someone asked a question about why anyone would do meditation. As the article makes clear, people have a very large number of purposes for engaging in meditation.

One interesting purpose relates to quieting the mind to allow it to show the person some thoughts which don't have a chance to emerge in the normal active mental state. When quieted, the mind produces thoughts which seem to have been assigned a lower priority but which can still matter. The phenomenon reminds of the "genie fortune telling" balls, black glass balls filled with a dark liquid. The idea is to ask a question and turn the ball over. Up from the murk, floats a little card with an answer, like "Yes" or "Maybe" or "Try again".

The mind in a quieted state may produce a thought that is quite unexpected. Unlike the little cards, the mind's products are not limited to a few responses in words. They might instead be thoughts that are pictures, sounds, feelings or combinations of these.

It is always surprising to me that I can forget something important and pleasurable. I wanted to watch a particular tv show but I forget to. I buy a good food but forget that I have it. Perfectly wonderful things can be forgotten as well as fears, miseries and worries. Quieting the mind allows thoughts to emerge that otherwise don't.

Coelho: "Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood"

I just found out this morning that the Dalai Lama wrote a book called "The Universe in a Single Atom." That reminded me of a pivotal book that got me thinking on a whole new line. It is "Awakening Universe, Emerging Personhood" by Mary Conrow Coelho ('Kway-lo), published in 2002 by Wyndam Hall Press. Coelho has degrees in systematic theology and biology. I view her book as an attempt to look at religious and human life and thought through the lens of current scientific thinking. Once you hear some versions of the birth of Buddha and compare them with the stories of the birth of Jesus, it can be of interest to think about some of the old fundamental questions but look for updated answers to them. How did humans and all earthly life get here?

I like to think that we are made of the same stuff as the stars. I think I have read that there are elements on earth that could not have come from our sun. Coelho introduced me to books that try to weave some larger questions and scientific answers and speculations into a form that children could use, by Jennifer Morgan. "Born with a Bang" and "From Lava to Life", copyright 2002, are published by Dawn Publications ( Thinking about our lives from the perspective of 15 billion years of the life of the universe is quite different from older creation stories but is worth trying. As we develop more consistent and verified knowledge, we will probably be glad for such thinking and materials.

Coelho does a thorough job thinking about cosmology and the insights of historically prominent Western mystics like Theresa of Avila and Meister Eckhart. I imagine there are, or will be, wonderful works that weave Eastern thinking and current science but I have not seen any yet. The Dalai Lama book might be just such the sort of thing that will start such a bridge that English speaking Americans can use.

What? Nothing?

"Meditation for ignorance and bliss?" asks the blogger on with the follow-up question about whether meditators are trying to hold nothing at all in their minds. I do try for that but it seems to me that the "nothing" we can grasp is analogous to white being the sum of all colors. The nothing we can grasp gets us close to everything there is.

"Meditation for Life" by Martine Bachelor explicitly says that the cessation of thinking is not the goal of meditation. I haven't read enough of her position, based on extensive experience, but I do find that for me, noticing my thinking and halting it is beneficial and broadening.

exploring meditation

I am not religious but I have collected information and experience about meditation that has enriched my life. By "meditation", I mean sitting still in a chair with eyes open and focused on some spot in front of me. At my convenience, I close my eyes. I try to notice any tension anywhere in my body and let it go when I can. I read "The Relaxation Response" by Herbert Benson (~1972) years ago and follow his idea of 10 to 20 minutes a day. The idea during the meditation is to notice when I am thinking about something, which the mind seems programmed to start doing, and gently put thoughts aside when I find I am thinking.

Why do such a practice? The answer for many Americans has been to find inner stress and lower it. The answer for ancient Hindus and many religious practicioners today is to be open to God. For me, a disorganized, more or less unchurched person, the answer has morphed from "it feels good" and "meditation lets me know me and the world" to "I need to" and "it gives me a chance to observe my thoughts, my life, existence and the world."

I worked a bit with meditation on and off without a steady interest in daily practice for about 2 decades. Then, I had a chance to listen to Deepak Chopra's "The Higher Self" on audio, while doing little trips around town. I decided on a committed practice. Since I am a fidgety person who has a natural interest in finishing a task so I can mentally chalk it up as "Done!", I set the countdown timer on my watch for 10 minutes. Over a couple of years, I added a minute when I thought I could stand a little longer session. Lately, I have been trying 10 minutes twice a day.

It can be surprising how much fear arises or unexpected worries, or, for that matter, hopes and wishes. A great deal of progress in knowing oneself and the world occurs when we find we can quietly put the material that arises on the shelf for later contact, if desired. Some people find that are low on sleep and fall asleep very easily while trying to meditate. Recently, I began reading "Buddhist Practice on Western Ground" by Harvey Aronson which has helped me understand Eastern traditions and ways they support in some cases, typical Western aims and goals and ways they contrast or contradict in others. One of the ideas I have tried is having a session with a pad and pencil handy where I let myself be interrupted long enough to jot down the items that arise. Thoughts that come to mind are often quite different from what I might have predicted. Aronson tells of advice from Ira Progoff that is evidently built on not always putting thoughts aside but I know nothing of Progoff's work. It does seem to me that there is a place for the usual mind emptying and occasional thought recording.

I am convinced that practicing meditation on a regular basis is a valuable tool for knowing one's fears and hopes and being able to understand and work with them

Returning to blogging

I had a Google blog for a little more than a year but began to doubt it was worth bothering with. But I just finished "Everything Is Miscellaneous" by David Weinberger. It renewed my enthusiasm for blogging. Shortly, I will post what I had up before, most of which are about regular, basic meditation.

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