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.

Pushing it uphill

Do you know about the Myth of Sisyphus? In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned by Zeus to push a heavy boulder up a mountain, but when he almost reached the top, the boulder would roll back to the bottom and Sisyphus would have to start all over again… forever. This seems to be a bleak picture of unending futility without hope. But is it? The French philosopher Albert Camus argued that “the struggle itself is a enough to fill our hearts, so we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy.”

This myth has always intrigued me because I see a quite a Buddhist slant to it. If we are in the middle of doing something, especially boring repetitive daily grind stuff, but at that moment we are just wishing that we were doing something else, then that way of thinking can only make us unhappy. So if I’m doing some boring everyday task, like washing the dishes, but I’m thinking I’d rather be writing my blog or reading a book or enjoying a cuppa, then I’m not really engaged in that present moment – I’m just wishing I was in some other alternative reality, which then makes me feel annoyed or dissatisfied with the present reality. However, the fact is that right in that moment of washing the dishes no other reality exists – this washing-the-dishes is the only reality and reading-a-book is just my imagination pulling me into some other non-existent world. In other words, what you are doing right now is totally real, so why not enjoy it?

When you think about it, it’s not the task itself that is boring and annoying, it’s the way we think about it that makes us feel dissatisfied. And if your mind is full of thinking about being somewhere else, then you miss the chance of finding something wonderful that might be right there in front of you, but it might pass by you because you are not really fully aware and present to see it. If I’m doing the dishes, I like to see the rainbows formed in the soap bubbles, or listen to the birds singing outside, or feel the warmth of the water on my hands. This is a meditation. Sometimes, if I’m able to stay present in the washing-the-dishes reality, I feel a great sense of gratitude for this gift of water from the tap, the satisfaction of having had a lovely meal, the good fortune to live in a place where I have the freedom to be safely in my own kitchen doing a simple task like washing the dishes. How lucky I am! And so doing the dishes suddenly makes me feel really happy.

If we can start with small meditations like this about daily tasks that seem to take up our time,¬†even the seemingly endless boring repetitions of getting in the car and driving to work or taking the kids to school, when we’d rather be doing something else, then gradually this will encompass our whole lives, so that everything we do can be made into fruitful uplifting experiences that can fill us with joy. In this way, it doesn’t matter what kind of life you live, you can be happy. It is only the wishing-I-was-somewhere-else that makes us unhappy. So this is how I can imagine that even Sisyphus can be happy.