The C word

No, not that one! I’m talking about “Cancer” (complete with the requisite capital letter to give it the gravity it deserves!) I remember reading a bumper sticker once that said “Cancer is a word, not a sentence” but when that word is spoken to you by a doctor, platitudes like this are utterly meaningless. I was living in Japan when I was told I had cancer and, as was the custom there at that time (still is as far as I know), it is not  the patient who is first told. This is because there is a belief that if a person knows they have a terminal illness, then they just give up and lose the will to live. So it was my husband who was told first and then he and the doctor discussed whether it was the right thing to tell me or not. Happily for me, because I was a foreigner they agreed to tell me.

I remember the moment so well because I suddenly felt like I was in a TV soapie. I mean, it was so cliched – the doctor in hospital whites keeping his face a suitable blend of concern and neutrality as he announced my “sentence”, while my white-faced husband looked at the floor and nervously twisted his wedding ring round and round, for once, lost for words. An awkward silence followed as if someone had just farted and we were all trying to pretend no-one heard it. I’m not being flippant, but it really felt so much like a stage set that I almost started to giggle while I waited anxiously for the punchline.

The prognosis, however, was very good, and with surgery and radiotherapy I was told that I should be okay, but it was difficult to know until after the operation. When we left the doctor’s surgery my husband thought it would be a good idea to take my mind off the bad news (and his I suspect). So we went to see a movie at a nearby cinema. I was feeling numb and didn’t care what movie we saw – my husband chose Batman Forever. When I look back now, I think it was a hilariously inappropriate choice but perhaps he needed the noise and fast-paced action to drown out the voices that might rise up inside him. For a person who was always in control, it was a great shock for him and he felt utterly helpless. I think a lot of men are like him. As for me, I couldn’t stop the tape that just kept going round and round…”I’ve got cancer, I’ve got cancer…” trying to make it real somehow by chanting this over and over like a mantra. After some time I suddenly realised that, just as The Riddler was laughing maniacally in the midst of mental breakdown, I was saying this mantra out aloud but because the movie sound was so deafeningly loud no one could hear me. I remember so clearly how everything – the crazy Riddler, Batman in his mask, the scarred, damaged Two Face…and me – all seemed like a surreal dream. And it seemed to stay surreal right through the hospital and recovery time, until the day when I got the all-clear and I felt utterly overwhelmed with gratitude just for the blessing of being alive…and truly knowing it.

That’s when I first started to learn about meditation, which was what I was going to share with you before I got sidetracked with the background story! Sorry about that – I will share more about actually learning to meditate soon. But I just want to add, I feel really committed to sharing with you about how to meditate because I know that it can be a tremendously helpful tool in times of personal crisis. If I had known how to meditate when I went through my treatment and recovery for cancer I would have had more energy to focus on healing. However, I used a lot of energy trying to stay calm but not knowing how, trying to stop the tapes that kept whirring around my mind but not knowing how to, trying to suppress my anxiety and fear but not knowing how to. Yet now, many years down the track, life still throws the odd curve-ball but having spent time meditating (and I’m not talking about hours set aside every day – really just several minutes a day is enough) I know that I have so much more energy to focus on getting through the tough times without being so distracted by energy-draining negative thoughts. I’ll explain more about what I mean by this next time…

Just let your mind go blank…Yeah, right!

When I was first interested in learning meditation, I enthusiastically went to several different local community classes, which, although well-meaning, ended up putting me off meditation for many years thereafter.

The first one I went to was the twisted-up-like-a-pretzel variety: The young and very fit-looking teacher, with buns like steel, worked very hard to force my resisting limbs into pretzel shape, then moved on to torture other attendees, before returning to the front and, assuming a perfect full lotus position, gently encouraged us all to “just let your mind go blank.” Well, actually, that wasn’t too difficult because my mind was focussed on the single sensation of every fibre in my body simultaneously releasing an unvoiced scream of agony! But I was new to the class and I didn’t want to look like a total loser, so I stayed like that – for how many lifetimes? – until well after the meditation session had finished. Beyond speech, it took some time for the teacher to realise that my stationary posture and contorted facial expression wasn’t due to being in an ecstatic state of rapture, but that I was stuck and needed her help to slowly and carefully, avoiding potential breakages, to unfold me. I smiled weakly, she responded with a puzzled frown, and I was too embarrassed to go back.

The next class I went tried was much more my cup of tea – I got to sleep! I was a young mum with two little kids, working part-time and studying part-time. I was constantly exhausted, and for an hour each week my husband took care of the kids while I went to meditation. In this class, the teacher got us to focus on counting our breaths from one to ten and then over again from one to ten. This is the classic Zen meditation that I now believe to be one of the most effective methods. However, in this class, the teacher said it was okay to lie down on the carpeted floor of the community centre if we felt more comfortable that way. This was great! I started to count my breaths from one to ten and by the time I got to about three I was out like a light! Now this would have continued to be a great source of rest for me – albeit useless as a meditation practice for gaining any kind of insight – had it not been for my propensity for snoring loudly after only a few minutes of the twenty minute meditation sessions. The teacher would lightly tap my foot and disturb my rest… again and again. Until, after a few sessions, the teacher suggested that I come to a morning session instead of the evening session because she was getting complaints from the other meditators. Again, I slunk away in embarrassment and didn’t return.

Before giving up on meditation for another decade, I tried a group that practiced with guided visualisation meditation. I didn’t find it easy to follow the instructions as I was guided through fields of flowers and forest pathways and streams and clouds of light, accompanied by saccharine New Age synthesiser music – it was all too sugar-coated sweet for my taste. And when I was guided to a gate, I was asked to imagine the place I would love to see through that gate: This was the goal of the meditation, but by then the place I wanted to be was in bed! In the feedback afterwards, people spoke rapturously of the heavenly places they had visited with auras of the purple light of the highest states of consciousness and I felt disappointed that I wasn’t able to do the same. Although it had been relaxing, it was unsustainable and as soon as I got home it was as if I had never been to the class and I didn’t continue, preferring instead to sleep!

Later, when teaching meditation I realised that visualisation meditation is actually a very advanced practice and needs to be gradually built up as a practice. This kind of walking-though-the-meadows type of meditation is not very helpful in developing a practice that produces long-term benefits. I call it fast-food meditation: it might satisfy your immediate hunger for a moment of respite but it doesn’t help you to deal with the everyday stresses of life because it is empty calories. So, I gave up on meditation for about a decade but came back to it when I got cancer… More about this next time…

Sitting twisted like a pretzel, humming OM

For many people, meditation is something that half-naked gurus do while sitting twisted up like a pretzel, humming OM, and it all seems just too hard. I have had lots of fellow pilgrims say to me that they tried meditation but “it didn’t work” or that they just couldn’t find the time in their busy lives to take a half an hour out of the day to sit and “do nothing.” Well, this one sentence reveals just so many common misunderstandings about meditation that it’ll take a lot of blog entries to address them all! Over the coming weeks I’d like to look at just a few of them and see how we go from there.

For a start, in our Western society we are very goal-oriented and have a very outcomes-based way of thinking; that is, we set a goal and we have a clear idea of how to go about achieving that goal and how we will recognise it once we’ve achieved it. So let’s say we set out to “do meditation”, what does that suggest to you? For many, it means finding half an hour a day to sit in full lotus position, forcing your mind to “think of nothing,” and you’ll know that you’ve succeeded when your mind goes completely blank and you can still get up and walk after half an hour in pretzel mode. Well I suppose if you did yoga for hours every day and you lived in a remote cave where you wouldn’t ever be disturbed and you practiced like that for about twenty years… then, yes, I guess it’s possible.

But what about the rest of us who have tendons like piano wires and spend our waking hours rushing from home into the car to work and home again and grabbing kids and meals on the way before crashing in front of the TV exhausted? What about Mums who have the 24/7 job of taking care of the kids? Sure, I could say to you, “You must nurture yourself… take half an hour every day that is just time for you… just tell the kids, ‘Mummy’s going to take some time out’, and close the bedroom door, light a scented candle and sit quietly for 30 minutes practicing meditation.” In your dreams! No sooner will you have lit the candle and you’ll hear a knocking on the door, “Mum…. Mum….. MUUUUUUMMM!!!” It’s so unrealistic! So does that mean that meditation really is just for single yoga freaks and mung beans?

Of course not! I can’t even sit cross-legged on the floor for five minutes without the pain becoming the dominant sensation (and I don’t believe pain is necessary for any spiritual practice – more on that later). And although I have managed over the years to build up the time I can sit quietly in meditation, I am basically a Type A person and this path has been very challenging for me. So over the years, the way I teach meditation has changed as well, and now I believe that you can get just as much benefit from a one-minute meditation as you can from half an hour. And it is this one-minute meditation that I’ll be sharing with you over the next few blogs.

However, in the meantime, I do have a thirty-minute guided meditation with beautiful shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) accompaniment that I recorded in a studio some years ago, which I am happy to send you via an email attachment. It is a big file though – 26MB – so please ensure that your email can receive it. You can learn more about this deep relaxation meditation on the Guided Meditation page.

Dreaming Chamber by Karen Casey

Today I’d just like to share with you a beautiful artwork from the Australian Indigenous artist Karen Casey. I was introduced to the video by my lecturer at uni in the unit Art and Spirituality that I am taking this semester. I found it haunting, mesmerising and totally engaging as a meditation. Water is used in all spiritual traditions as a way of initiation as well as a way of healing and cleansing. Many of the spiritual practices that I have been engaged in have involved water: standing under waterfalls, immersion in icy streams, sprinkling water that has been ritually blessed over the altar and over fellow pilgrims, drinking from natural springs along mountain pilgrimage paths, and ritually bathing for purification before my initiation ceremonies. And as a baby I was baptised with water, as is the religious custom in all Christian and Jewish traditions of initiation and purification. Yesterday I was watching the rain as it ran off the corrugations of the roof into a bed of nasturtiums (the ones you see in the photo at the top of this page in fact). And as the drops fell, they landed one at a time upon the broad leaves as if the water was playing a tune as it struck each of the leaves – the music of nature. It was very beautiful and quite hypnotic as I began to really hear the mystical melody of the raindrops singing. This video artwork by Karen Casey brought to mind many such instances of being in water and being with water. How does it resonate with you? Please share your thoughts.

Juggling the sun and the moon

In Buddhist teachings there is always an emphasis on trying to achieve balance in all aspects of our lives, in an effort to reach a state of equanimity (stability and calmness). This is why it is called the “Middle Way” – to find a path between the extremes. Often in our lives we are aware of how our own pendulum swings from one extreme to another, but it seems that it’s only when we get to one extreme that we realise it and then try to move back to a centring position. Well, this is what I always do when it comes to chocolate, anyway! This morning my husband pointed out (in a very amused voice, mind you) that there was an empty chocolate wrapper on the bedside table, an uneaten chocolate in my handbag, and not one, but two bars of chocolate in the groceries I’d just brought home! Mmm… time to let the pendulum swing back a bit the other way towards balance (funny how that metaphor works for the indicator on the bathroom scales as well!)

But it isn’t always so obvious when we are moving into an unbalanced state, although we certainly can feel ‘out-of-whack’ and intuitively sense that something is not quite right. In the larger picture though, we live in a very “masculine” society: that doesn’t mean that we live like men as such, but rather that our lives are filled with action, light, heat, moving forward, and expending lots of energy. That’s what “masculine” energy means in a spiritual sense. This masculine energy is represented in Buddhism as the figure of the sun. On the other hand, “feminine” energy means just the opposite: passive, dark, cool, staying still and drawing energy inwards. This feminine energy is represented in the figure of the moon.

In our society, however, being active and moving forward are seen as positive traits, whereas being said to be “passive” is viewed negatively and implies laziness and of not being seen to be doing something. However, this is also how we “burn out” – think about that… burnt out, as if we have gotten too hot and melted and there has been nothing to cool us down. So it is essential to our physical as well as spiritual wellbeing to take time out and just be still. Rather than being lazy, it is the way that we can return to the balance that is vital to living a peaceful yet fulfilling life.

This image of the masculine hot sun and the feminine cool moon is used extensively in Buddhist art, but recently I found that this symbolism has also been used in Medieval Europe in the context of alchemy and even as far back as ancient Egypt. In alchemy it refers to the “Chymical Wedding”, which is the union of the masculine and the feminine so that a new perfectly integrated whole can be achieved that joins all opposing aspects of our nature into the Divine One. This is the spiritual alchemy of Medieval mystical Christianity. The psychiatrist Carl Jung used this imagery also as a means of finding balance psychologically in one’s life.

I use the symbol of the sun and the moon a lot in my own meditation and awareness practice, and it is quite easy to feel when I’ve heated up too much and need to draw energy inward instead of expending too much. But even after many years of concentrated effort I still find it difficult to give myself the space I need to be quiet, without feeling like I should be doing something else. The masculine side of our society is so deeply entrenched it takes time… well, to give ourselves just free time! So right now I’m sitting outside in my garden as the sun is shedding that special winter light that filters green through the new nasturtiums and glints off the water in the birdbath as the little Honey Eaters descend for their ritual bath. Aaah……Breathe out……switch off the computer now and go somewhere to sit quietly for just a few minutes – that’s doing something!