Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Define "real"

Reality is a totally human notion. Outside of our minds there is nothing that is either "real" or "not real". Something becomes real or not only because we care to make such a distinction using some rules that change with every generation. If you remove a person who makes the judgment, the characteristic of reality disappears and all forms become perfectly equal to nothingness.

In a way, "realness" and "importance" are very similar notions. "Important" things are what is important to us on emotional and moral levels. "Real" things are important in the similar way, but on a conceptual and less conscious level because they form a basis on which our model of the world is built. Without "real" things the model falls apart and our self-identity dies with it.

But if you admit a possibility that your self-identity might be just an artificial creation of your own mind, you can see that without that identity it does not really matter whether anything is real or not. And if it does not matter, the whole notion of reality falls apart.

Is soul real or not? For Christians it is, just as our sins. For scientists it is not because it cannot be detected in a physical experiment. For me, it is outside of the real/unreal scale. "Reality", "soul" and "scientific experiment" - all these things fall into exactly the same bucket.

In the end, everything that we know about comes to us as a set of perceptions. Whatever happens next, whatever you think of next, is just a new set of perceptions. It's like a dream or a movie - if you knew that what you see is a dream and lacks "reality", would you care so much about what scene you see next? Now what if there is no such thing as "reality"? Just stop worrying about the next scene and enjoy the movie as it unfolds!

Monday, February 18, 2008

About Meditation Posture

Some observations about what posture and other bodily specifics work best for meditation. I may add more later as I keep discovering new things or recalling something that I noticed and then forgot.

Pretty much every posture is good enough if it is well balanced. Your mind needs to get centered inside your body, and if posture is not balanced, that will keep distracting your mind and stirring the cloud of emotions and parasite thoughts.

Also, posture that is out of balance will disrupt your breathing and that is not a good thing. Breathing is the most important thing for body and, consequently, the fear of suffocation is one of the most powerful emotions that can make your body tense and bring the sense of anxiety into your subconsciousness. That works in regular life too - a lot of anxiety and unrest may come because we forget to breethe properly or sit in a posture that compresses lungs and diaphragm.

Anyway, like I said, any balanced posture that lets your breathe freely is good enough. But the lotus pose is the best. It is hard for Western people though as we are used to sitting in chairs, so your legs are not flexible enough. I can only sit in half-lotus, and even then I don't put my leg on the hip most of the time - I keep it on the ankle, next to the knee.

But that makes my knees to lay too far apart. In proper lotus pose the legs are on hips and that brings knees much closer together. Why it is good? You need to try it for yourself. Basically, it brings the whole body into much more compact form and naturally evokes the sense of being balanced, centered and, for the lack of better term, "at home". You really get a warm cozy feeling that your home is right here in your body, that you are complete and everything is just all right. Maybe later I'll find better words to describe this feeling.

Plus, this way of sitting has few more benefits:
  • It brings your center and awareness to the "hara" area, as Japanese call it - basically, your center of gravity. That's where all body's power comes from and most people never use it because their imaginary center (where they feel their "I" resides) is located much higher, close to the head - e.g. mine is located in the neck area. So when they act, they act from that center and not from the center of the body. So many problems arise from that - I'll have to come back to this subject some other time.
  • It removes some strain from the back and allows you to keep the spine in a vertical position easily. Your sit like a king on a throne and you feel like a mountain.
  • Vertical spine also means that your lungs and diaphragm are properly expanded and you can breath freely and spontaneously. You don't really need to think about breathing when you meditate, unless you are at a very early stage when you try to follow your breath (e.g. count it) to discipline your mind a little bit and teach it how to stay concentrated.
  • Also, proper lotus posture puts your ancles in a position where they naturally become a comfortable support for your hands - your palms calmly rest on ankles right next to your hara area and reinforce it.

Like with anything else, with meditation you can't just rush in and "try hard-er". First, you need to gradually "break in", and even after that, your practice needs to be very gentle and comfortable. It is all about learning to feel signals that are normally buried under your and outside frantic activities. That goes for the posture too. You can't just break your legs and force yourself into the full lotus. Even if you succeed, in few years your joints will become a total wreck.

You need to stretch the muscles first to the point where sitting in the lotus posture feels comfortable and does not strain your knees - especially this! Knees are very fragile and it is way too easy to make the ligaments loose. It's not the ligaments that must stretch - it's the muscles.

Here is a link to a good set of stretching excercises - http://membres.lycos.fr/zenmontpellier/Lotus-english.html. Unfortunately, on my computer images does not come up properly - this site is old and probably not maintained anymore.

Good luck, friends!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Zen Meditation

Everyone's heard the word "meditation", but if you ask what it stands for, you'll get as many answers as there are people. Here I will try to explain to myself how I understand it from Zen practice.

There are two kinds of Zen meditation. First kind can rougly be compared to peeling an onion, or, better yet, rooting out a stump of a tree. I had to do this couple of weeks ago so I remember the experience.

What we try to uproot is our primordial state of ignorance, our delusions that have very deep roots in the consciousness. When you start doing that, first you make some progress relatively easily. You find some roots that are close to surface, then you pull them out and feel enlightened for a while.

However, the deeper you go, the more work needs to be done - you've already dug a hole around the trunk and removed some of the roots, but the stump is still sitting in the ground as strong as ever. Even worse, the whole site starts looking quite messy and unpleasant, compared to nice clean trees of delusion that grow beautifully in minds of people around you.

But if you've been practicing Zen for a while, the damage has already been done so you can't just call it quits and go back to your regular old life. Unfortunately, at this point many people get stuck as they do what I would call an equivalent to kicking the stump over and over again in hopes that eventually this will do the job. You sit over and over again and "meditate", keep "practicing" (whatever artificial activity your mind means by that) and you think that something is changing and eventually you'll get a breakthrough. But in fact all that happens is you getting dumber and dumber. You keep kicking the trunk with a bare foot but that will not do anything substantial even if you spend all your life doing that.

The more productive approach, just as with a real tree stump, is to get smarter and try attacking it with different tools and from different angles. Dig a little, chop a little, apply some leverage, then have some rest and try from the other side. The most frustrating part is that almost to the last moment the damn stump just sits there like nothing is happening, and the place around gets messier and messier (that's me allright!). And then - bam! - the trunk starts moving and soon the whole thing is out, laying on the ground. What a relief! Some roots remain in the ground, of course, but they'll rot by themselves, sooner or later.

So what are the tools that you have? Asking some basic questions ("Who am I? What is all this?"), but not accepting answers that your mind comes up with (those are like little pieces of dirt and wood chips) is like using a crowbar as a leverage. Watching yourself and noticing how your delusions express themselves through your thoughts and actions is like using an axe to chop off the roots. And just getting still and sensitive in your mind to listen to messages that your intuition sends out of nowhere is like using a shovel to remove dirt that obscures the roots.

~~~

The second kind of meditation is simply not doing anything. Now that sounds simple, but in fact it is next to impossible for the intellectual mind to achieve. The thing is that "doing nothing" does not mean literally not doing anything, e.g. suppressing all mind activities. It simply means not using your mind to modify anything that comes up in any way - not fabricating anything. Sometimes that means indeed not doing something, and sometimes it's the opposite - not struggling with something that comes up naturally and spontaneously. If the water is still, don't stir it. But if the water is already moving, as in a stream - don't build a dam to stop it, let it flow!

Of course the thinking active mind rarely knows what is the right thing not to do. Most of the time all it is capable of is doing. It moves when it's time to be still, and it tries to get still and suppress thoughts that spontaneously come out of nowhere. But why it is so hard for mind?

I think the reason is that typically there is so much of habitual "doing" going on in our own mind that it completely overwhelms and drowns the intuitive sense of what "not doing" is at any given moment. It's like we get partially deaf because the noise is so loud, and even as we sit down and try to listen to our sense of non-doing, the signal is too weak - we can't hear it.

This situation is hard to change. Unless you totally uproot the trunk of the tree of delusions that grows in your mind, it will keep whispering with its leaves and obscuring sun's light. But you can still learn what non-doing is - little by little, gradually regain some sensitivity, which will in turn bring the noise of activities of mind down a bit, and you'll be able to hear silence a bit better, and that will tell you how to bring the noise down a little, and so on... And at the end, you'll realize that there never was that tree of delusions at all - it was completely imagined by your own mind!

That's an elegant way of uprooting a tree, isn't it? ;)
© Andrei Palskoi 2004-2008. All rights reserved.