Notes on getting quiet
Pretty much every morning, I get up, grab my zafu and the zabuton it sits upon, and walk down a flight of stairs to a quiet spot on the landing. I put the zabuton, a large and thick rectangular mat, down, and then I put the zafu on the center of the zabuton, toward the back edge, so that I will be facing east. Then I sit on the zafu, a meditation cushion that raises my butt above the level of my knees, now folded Indian style, and click the small kitchen timer I’ve brought with me, which is set for 45 minutes. Then I straighten my spine, pin my shoulders back, cup my left hand inside my right hand below my navel, thumbs touching, and then I close my eyes. And then I breathe deeply through my nose, relax, let the breathing find a quiet natural rhythm, and I let go into wherever I am.
What generally transpires is that I notice the ambient room sound, and then I focus my attention on the air coming in and out of my nostrils, and then I notice the quality of whatever thoughts arise in my now-quieter mind. Memories coming up? Note “remembering,” then return my focus to the breath coming through the tip of my nose. Thinking about what I have to do later, or what I want to do long range? Note “planning,” then return to the breath. Thinking critically about something? Note “judging,” then return to the breath. Getting a bunch of images or even a movie screened in my head? Note “imaging,” then return to the breath.
As simple as that sounds, sometimes it’s hard. Occasionally there’s physical pain, especially toward the end of the meditation sit. Sometimes my thinking swerves all over the place, a phenomenon certain Buddhists call “monkey mind,” and occasionally I’m physically tired, and I find myself slipping into a dream state, which although pleasurable is not desirable for purposes of meditation. And sometimes nothing happens except the breath: in, out, in, out.
Eventually the timer goes off, and then I go through a sequence of metta affirmations: “May all beings everywhere, without exception, be safe, and free from all harm and danger, inner and outer. May all beings everywhere, without exception, be peaceful and happy. May all beings everywhere, without exception, be healthy and strong. May all beings everywhere, without exception, be able to care for themselves, and live with ease in this world. May all beings everywhere, without exception, be free.” Then, affirmations for myself: “May I be free from danger. May I have mental happiness. May I have physical happiness. May I have ease of well being.” And then, the same sequence for several benefactors, and several strangers, and several people I’m having challenges with, and a few pet animals I’ve met, and then for the building where I’m staying, and the neighborhood, and the city, and state, and country, and world, and finally for all sentient beings. And then I dedicate the merit of my meditation sit to all beings, and offer gratitude to the three jewels: the Buddha, the dharma, the sangha.
I also pray, a set of prayers I’ve learned in a 12-step group I’ve been a member of for 17 and a half years now: basically, prayers centered around the practice of the third, seventh and eleventh steps, plus a few others, like the Serenity Prayer popularized by Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr. If I have to get up and go somewhere in the day before meditating, I make sure I get a sit in sometimes during the day or, if need be, that evening.
Thus constitutes my formal spiritual practice. I write this because, lately, I’ve gone through a stormy period, where the normally quiet and centered part of my being has felt more out of control, and, basically, I’ve been spouting some crazy stuff, or at least it’s crazy for me. As I intimated in one of those posts, it’s because I’m living way outside my comfort zone, and physically I don’t have a real center. Not having a steady job, and losing personal relationships, and then getting to the place where I’ve occasionally even gone through the hardship of not having enough to eat, can destabilize even the most rock-solid paragon of centeredness, and I of course am not that paragon.
On the positive side, however, I’ve learned I’m a lot more resilient than I’d thought before. Part of that may come from the consistency of my spiritual practice: I’ve managed to meditate every day now since beginning Vipassana (Buddhist insight meditation) practice at the end of July 2007, and I’ve added other elements (prayer, metta) and will add even more — generosity, for starters — as I continue to trudge along. The result is that I’ve been able to roll with certain events, experiencing them with a cushion of distance between cognition and knee-jerk emotional reaction, and overall there’s a camlness to my mien that wasn’t there three years ago.
But then I get hit with an emotional storm, like something stupid: A birthday brings up a bunch of old unmet needs, or the visceral perception that my needs aren’t being met today, and there I am back on the dock, flailing stupidly like a fish out of water. So, well, if anyone wants to meet a guy for a little late birthday cake or pie in the next week, lemme know. God, I’m being so stupid here, but it’s old irrational business that I’ve gotta find some way to square away, so I’m taking the liberty of giving it voice. Maybe that will help me bury that old inner zombie once and for all, reclaim the quiet-center part of me and move forward. Or, at least I can hope, right? —Jackson Griffith