How to Create your own Meditation Practice

A brief, practical guide to creating your own meditation practice, followed by useful questions and answers about meditation.

Excerpted from the Introduction to Meditation & Mindfulness class on November 19th, 2020.

Introduction to Meditation and Mindfulness

A one-hour zoom class on meditation and mindfulness. This was the first class I recorded, so please pardon the technical glitches… 😉

Topics include:
-Why meditate?
-Meditation techniques
-Creating your own home practice

Includes three meditations. If you’d like music for those meditations, here is a link to the playlist on Spotify.

Metamorphosis

One June morning, these ugly little bugs crawled up out of the lake onto shore. 

Nasty looking creatures, they would emerge from the water, and then just sit someplace dry for awhile. Until their backs split open and out pops a dragonfly head.

Over the next twenty minutes or so, the young dragonfly struggles to free itself from the empty carcass of its former existence and begin a new life.

It’s an awkward, ugly process. But once the dragonfly is free, then its wings start to grow. Surprisingly quickly, the delicate, gossamer wings unfold.

When the wings catch the sunlight, the subtle, intricate beauty is illuminated.

And then the young dragonfly spreads those magnificent wings to dry…

And poof… it’s gone. Living behind this ugly, wrecked shell.

It’s amazing, how something so beautiful can come from something so ugly.

Maybe that’s what’s going on with the world right now, particularly with racism in America. Before the pandemic and the spark of George Floyd’s death, racism in America was hideous.

It’s still hideous, but now, maybe something new is emerging.

The process is still ugly now, ungainly, awkward and painful.

But maybe, just maybe, something beautiful is coming.

Maybe all this pain and suffering, all this grotesque ugliness is part of the process of humanity’s development into something new, something better.

That’s a nice thought.

The Sticky Dilemma of Moral Relativism

One of the most challenging concepts of eastern philosophies is the idea that our physical reality is an illusion. Our lives, our bodies, everyone we’ve ever known and loved, are not actually real, but just a shared delusion. True reality is some kind of cosmic oneness, in which we are all interconnected parts of the one eternity existing in eternal bliss.

This notion is challenging, because to most of us, this reality sure does feel real. Knock on a table, it feels real; snub out a cigarette in your eye, it feels real. It’s exceedingly difficult to grasp the concept that these sensations are only real inside our minds, created by our brains in response to stimuli received by our sense organs. 

But let’s say we manage to accept, on an intellectual level, that everything is an illusion. This raises another issue. If everything is an illusion, it’s easy to slip down the slope into abject Nihilism: If none of this is real, then why does anything matter? How do we define right and wrong?

I’ve struggled with this idea since first reading the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most famous books of Hindu thought. It was assigned by my mediation teacher, some fifteen years ago now. The Gita tells the story of Arjuna, a skilled warrior lined up for battle against an army of noble warriors from another family he knows well. This battle has come about because his brother lost all the family’s possessions in a game of dice, and now the situation has devolved into a massive conflict with thousands of soldiers on each side ready to kill each other. (This actually sounds like something that could happen in these times…)

I can understand Arjuna’s reluctance to join in this battle. But as Arjuna is struggling with this dilemma, God comes to talk to him, in the form of Krishna, his charioteer. 

Essentially Krishna tells Arjuna not to worry about killing all these people, because it’s just an illusion, he’s not really killing them, just their bodies. The Atman, or Self, does not die with the physical body. 

These bodies come to an end;
But that vast embodied Self
Is ageless, fathomless, eternal.
Therefore you must fight, Arjuna.
If you think that this Self can kill
Or think that it can be killed,
You do not well understand
Reality’s subtle ways.
It never was born; coming
To be, it will never not be.
Birthless, primordial, it does not
die when the body dies.
Just as you throw out used clothes
And put on other clothes, new ones,
The Self discard it’s used bodies
And puts on others that are new.

Essentially God tells Arjuna killing is not wrong, because he’s not really killing the Self, just the body.

I’m sure you can see the problem here, dear Reader. If we take this idea to its logical extreme, then we lose all basis for morality, right and wrong become meaningless.

If these physical bodies are not really us, but just a set of clothing, one in a long string of outfits we have worn and will continue to wear. They why does it matter what we do to anyone, or to ourselves? 

If this is just a meaningless physical shell, why not lie in bed watching Parks & Rec and eating Cheetos 24/7? If it’s all just an illusion, why bother doing anything in this world? Why is it wrong to hurt others? This line of thought makes me want to just hide in a cave and meditate until I realize the cosmic oneness.

I remember myself and others asking my teacher this question, but I can’t remember what the answer was, either it didn’t make sense at the time or I wasn’t ready to hear it.

It wasn’t until years later, after leaving my meditation group, that I finally found a satisfactory answer – while listening to Just So, a recording of lectures by Alan Watts.

The key to this dilemma lies in recognizing the distinction between absolute and relative reality. 

If we fully believe in this tenet of eastern philosophy, that physical reality is all an illusion. Then yes, in an absolute sense, nothing we do matters, there is no right and wrong. 

But, at the same time, we’re all living in this shared physical reality, and relative to this reality, what we do matters. 

Watts used an example of space. Relative to interstellar space, right now we’re zipping around our sun at 67,000 miles per hour, and our solar system is careening around a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy at a speed of 514,496 miles per hour, and our galaxy is probably spiraling around something else – on an on, spirals within spirals. In an absolute sense we are in constant motion. 

Yet relative to the Earth, which dominates our perception of space, we’re not moving. Right now I’m sitting in this chair, and I feel motionless. 

Do you see the parallel? In an absolute sense, I’m zipping through the universe at the unfathomable speed of 514,496 miles per hour. But in the relative sense, relative to the Earth, I’m motionless. Both are simultaneously correct, the difference lies in my perception, relative to my frame of reference. 

Similarly, in an absolute sense, there is no right and wrong, it’s all just one big cosmic oneness. But in a relative sense, relative to this shared reality in which I’m writing this blog and you’re reading it, right and wrong feel very real to us, there are consequences to our actions. Just like the Earth dominates our perception of motion, this shared reality of ours dominates our perception of existence. 

With special ‘tools’ we can sense the absolute reality. With a telescope we can study the stars and learn of our constant motion relative to the universe; we can realize that our apparent motionless is an illusion.

With meditation, we can study reality and learn of our underlying oneness with everyone and everything; we can realize that our apparent separateness is an illusion. 

All perceptions are true. On the cosmic scale, it is all an illusion, nothing matters, there is no right and wrong. 

But in the relative scale of this life I’m living, morality is very real. If I do nothing but watch Netflix and eat Cheetos, I’m going to feel gross and unhealthy pretty quickly. When I watched George Floyd murdered on TV, it clearly felt wrong. All of the numerous injustices in this world make we weep in despair. 

So that’s how I continue to function in this world while still believing it’s all an illusion. That’s how I care about this world without giving into hopeless despair, because beneath the inequality, beneath the injustice, beneath the rampant consumerism and changing climate, we’re all cosmic bliss. (Everything is ok)

Right cannot exist without wrong. We only know what is right in relation to what is wrong. Without wrong, right would not be right, it would just be. Right and wrong, good and evil – they are two halves of the One.

And yes, it doesn’t fully make sense and there’s some of circular reasoning here – but that’s kinda how reality is. Spirals within spirals….

Next up: How do we decide what’s right and what’s wrong. 

A Creation Myth for our Time

A Creation Story for our Time.

In the beginning, everything was One.

For an eternity, the universe existed in a state of perfect, unimaginable bliss. A tiny point of infinite density containing everything in existence. Everything connected to everything else. 

There was no pain. There was no loneliness. Only blissful connection, forever and ever. And ever and ever and ever. 

The first eternity was heavenly. 

The second eternity… meh.

Halfway through the third, the universe said, “Nuts to this, I’m fucking bored,” and exploded into an infinity of is-ness. 

Suddenly, there was loneliness, pain, and confusion as the infinitely separated universe wondered, “Oh shit, what exactly have we gotten ourselves into?” and immediately longed for the lost, perfect, boring connection of the One. 

Thus began the Quest of the universe to find itself once again. The infinite is-ness eventually coalesced into vibrations, then subatomic particles, atoms, interstellar dust, and stars. Stars kept condensing until they finally exploded too, flinging heavier atoms out into the void. 

Slowly, the universe started finding itself. Then life, and consciousness – born into separateness, aware of its separateness. Conscious loneliness appeared, the struggle to survive, the thrill of living. Hunger, pain, fear, joy, connection, Love, the whole spectrum of the human condition.   

And now here we are, with a speck of memory of perfect bliss in our collective unconscious, a subconscious filled with the loneliness of perceived separation, and a conscious mind trying to hide from it all in the busyness of life. 

Lessons

I took a bath today.

I’m marking that as a win.

I feel like COVID-19 is forcing us to look at ourselves. Us as the collective humanity, and each of us as individuals. We have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. We just have to face ourselves right now. 

It’s kind of ironic, I spent the last year and a half ‘finding myself’ and the biggest lesson I learned about myself is I need alone time in nature to be happy. – Aha! Break through! I am coming to know myself! Self-love! Self-love!

And now I am trapped in the suburban Milwaukee, where it’s hard to find nature. 

Well-played universe, well-played. 

And yet, if all the bullshit I’ve been spewing about meditation and mindfulness is true, it shouldn’t matter. 

If I really believe everything works out exactly the way it should, I should be able to find love and gratitude in my heart for this lesson the universe is teaching me now. 

So am I going to walk the walk, or am I going whine about the cruelties of fate?

Breathe. 

Ok, but here’s the thing. Being alone in nature, reaaaaally helps me remember that everything is ok.

Trapped in a city, surrounded by the mental vibrations of people, and buildings that trap and reverberate these vibrations, it’s really easy to start believe what everyone else does, that existence is suffering, that nothing really ever quite lives up to the expectations you create for it. 

It may be harder to remember in a city, but it’s still true: our reality is created by our minds. Our experience of the world is created by our reaction to the stimuli we encounter. 

So if I really believe all that, it should be fine here in Milwaukee. 

And it is, I just have to remember to keep looking for it. 

Today, around 5pm, the sun finally graced us with his luminance – halle-fucking-lujah. After sitting at my computer all afternoon, battling a bug in my data-curation code that is still kicking my ass, I really wanted to go for a walk outside.

But my mom made dinner early, she felt compelled to try a new recipe – a hot German dish – beef stroganoff. (Cooking seems to be one of my mom’s stress relief valves.) So I sat down for dinner instead, trying not to rush too much, because I want to spend quality time with my mom.

Then I was heading out for a walk, the sun was now less than a fist’s height above the houses. But I had to stop by my sister’s house (her family lives next door – we’ve got a mini-compound situation going on here), because my sister’s dog, Dora, had come over to my mom’s house for dinner, and I had to bring her back. 

After letting Dora in, my sister, Kristin, said she wanted to go for a walk too, then my nephew Harold said so too, so they started getting ready. Meanwhile my other nephew, Henry comes careening back into the garage on his bike and also wants to go. 

I eyed the drooping sun, feeling the chances of his rays gracing my skin slipping behind the trees. After everyone was shoed, gloved, jacketed and hatted up, the sun had dipped behind the neighborhood buildings. We set off into a numbing wind that had materialized, seemingly just to mock me. 

I wasn’t expecting it to be this cold, and I breathed through the urge to mentally kick myself for not dressing warmer. But it was warmer when I first tried to leave…

I don’t remember the start of the walk, cuz I was so engrossed in the mental chatter of whining in my head about not being able to do what I want because I always have to wait for people. And please god when can I get the fuck out of Milwaukee. 

But then we rounded a bend in the nearby subdivision and the horizon opened up on a little pond, with the sun hovering just above the now distant trees, reflecting off the pond, and the beauty stunned my mind into silence. 

Kristin was standing behind me, fiddling with Harold’s coat. Henry scampered off on his own, and I had a few blessed moments to stand there, close my eyes, feel the sun on face, hear the birds chirping in some syncopated rhythm only they understand – at least 4 different calls contributing to the symphony – and I felt it, that peace that comes from nature. That escape from my mental chatter, from the collective chatter of humanity. 

And that’s when I remembered all the teachings, all the lessons. That’s when I remembered this experience is my reaction, I can influence it. 

But damn it’s hard when I’m inside, surrounded by people, giving my attention to social media (when I’m procrastinating or doing social media stuff for Elephant Journal). It’s easy to get sucked into that mindset, to forgot all the mindfulness training. 

But, if I had gone for walk when I first wanted to, the sun wouldn’t have been in that perfect position, just above the horizon, to create that stunning scene. 

See, everything works out exactly the way it should. Why do I keep resisting it? What can’t I just accept the lesson with gratitude?

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