Monday, May 30, 2011

practice: buddhism

I do a form of meditation called "Insight," derived from the Vipassana tradition of Buddhism. It basically entails sitting with the spine straight and watching the breath, in and out. While not getting caught up in your thoughts or other sensations. You let them float in and out of your mind without holding on to them. Simple enough, yet not so easy to do. The mind likes to wander.
But practicing this day after day gives great insight into how the mind works, especially the impermanence of thoughts. Meditation teaches how not to identify with one’s thoughts so much. They are not a part of you, they just come and go. Experiencing this realization diminishes their power and clears the mind in a beautiful, expansive way. 
It’s quite freeing to have some control over the mind. Things don’t bother me as much, and if I find myself starting to obsess over something, or get into negative thinking, I can often stop it.
Meditation is helpful on so many levels, from the spiritual to the physical and psychological. I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, but I’ve personally derived the following benefits:
Psychologically, meditation has helped me decrease anxiety and depression. After my father died of cancer, sitting (as it’s called) helped me work through grief in a healthy way, without holding on to it or denying it.  
On a more mundane level, a sitting practice helps decrease stress because you learn to just not let things bother you so much. It’s incredibly relaxing. I’m halfway through a very grueling and hectic nursing program, and my daily meditation practice has been so crucial in helping me stay calm throughout, and keeping me from resorting to negative stress management techniques like eating crap food. 
When everyone else was freaking out over the latest test or whatever, I would go into the woods behind school and do a walking meditation, then come back to class all chilled out.
And if I’m feeling hostile towards people, I do what’s called a “lovingkindess meditation” -- also from the Buddhist tradition --  where you learn to send out good vibes (in a structured way)  to whomever you don’t like or is getting on your nerves. So I would say that meditating makes me less pissed-off in general. 
Physically, maintaining a daily meditation practice has helped me manage chronic insomnia, which I first developed when my son was a baby years ago. Basically, when I meditate I sleep well, and when I can be up for hours at night, exhausted the next day. So it’s worth it just for that alone.
It’s also good for defusing tension headaches. If I feel one coming on, I go sit for 20 minutes and just breathe. By the time I’m done, the headache is gone.
Spiritually, meditation gets me out of my everyday ego self and connects me to a wider, more transcendent reality. Sometimes on the cushion I get to that sweet spot where me and my breath are at one and my mind is perfectly clear. Other times I just get a feeling of well-being. Not so earth-shattering, but very beneficial. One time I had a very profound ecstatic experience, where I completely left my body and all boundaries between myself and other living beings were erased. 
Other times I’m just sitting there feeling all distracted, unable to stop the constant chatter of thoughts in my head, and it gets frustrating. But that’s a part of the experience too. You learn to let go of the frustration. The benefits come from being consistent, doing it every day, no matter what your personal experience of it.
I first learned to meditate when I took a workshop at the National Black Theatre, back in the late 80s, right out of college. That was really the first time I had ever encountered artsy, bohemian black folks en masse, most of them older than me, and I learned a lot from them. 
We did all sorts of body work and acting exercises. It was a great experience. We would sit in a circle, stare at a candle and breathe. Right away I could see that regular meditation could yield very many benefits, yet even so it took me years to be able to sustain a practice on a regular basis. 
I would meditate daily for a few months, then get sidetracked and stop for a year. Life, a busy schedule, or just plain laziness would get in the way. So I’d start up again, stop, rinse and repeat. For about twenty years. Though I thought of myself as a pretty disciplined person, I couldn’t figure out why I had such a hard time sticking with it.  
And then about two, three years ago, after the aforementioned death of my father -- along with some other personal trauma which happened around the same time -- I was suddenly able to keep it going. After all those years, I had somehow managed to learn to just sit, every day. 
And I have been meditating pretty much daily ever since. I’m sure that deep in my psyche there was a definite cause and effect between those experiences and my newfound ability to be consistent in my sitting practice, but I’m not quite sure what it was. 
As far as Buddhist philosophy, there’s a lot I really vibe with, in particular the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path. Not sure about reincarnation and karma. Sometimes the universe seems too random for something like karma to be an actual. For sure everything is impermanent. From time to time I will read some of the ancient texts (the Dhammapada is my favorite). But mostly though, I just meditate.


  1. I consider myself a practicing Buddhist. The transformative powers of meditation have been amazing for me. :)

  2. It's amazing isn't it? And still after all this time I know I've only scratched the surface.