Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Meditation Without Beliefs

       I'm convinced through life experience that most people I meet want their lives to be better, especially happier and more peaceful, and that many of them look for ways to do that, usually through means that are more external than internal.  Many avoid or shy away from almost any internal method they hear about for achieving happiness and tranquility simply because it might require accepting some belief.  They often see people who, indeed, seem to have really experienced these life fulfilling objectives, but still they hesitate because they're suspicious of some hidden gimmick or belief that would entrap them.     
      After all, most of us who have reached adulthood and then some have answered the door to find people promising happiness and peace if you will just buy into their particular religion’s beliefs.  Even well-intentioned relatives, friends, and acquaintances invite us to experience their spiritual practices.  But if we’re satisfied with our religious tradition or just don’t want to try another one, we do our best to tell them “no” politely and then change the subject or close the conversation so they’ll leave our home.  All the while, however, we would still like to find something simple, a practice or technique or process not requiring us to accept any belief but offering the opportunity to find our own way to more happiness and tranquility.  I was one of the lucky ones to find such a practice with meditation many years ago while I was studying for a bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
      I was in a psychology class taught by Dr. Gordon Becker, a clinical psychologist, and one of the objectives was to write an essay on a subject that had been presented to our course group by one of the presenters who had visited our class.  Just recently, one of the economics professors in our university, Dr. David Shultze, had made a presentation on meditation, which interested me, and extended an invitation to the students in our class to visit his group on campus.  He had also indicated that meditation didn’t involve accepting any beliefs other than just trying the techniques to find out if one experienced any beneficial results.  Nor were any of the techniques of silent meditation deemed a religion.  Since I was one of those people who wanted my life to be happier and more tranquil as well as to have material on which I could write a paper, I decided to take David up on his invitation.  During the following week, I participated in his group, benefited from the forty-five minutes of silent meditation I learned to practice, and found there were no beliefs I had to accept.  Consequently, I wrote the paper and continued to attend his group because I had felt some of the peace and tranquility I wanted in my life.
      Ever since that autumn evening long ago in 1975, I’ve been practicing meditation without having to accept any beliefs and my life has become progressively happier and more tranquil.  Have there been absences from the practice along the way?  Certainly, and they’ve helped me to experience the loss of contentment and peace I needed to return to my practice and  to attend meditation retreats, study, and read to improve my ability to continue opening to the insights that  come my way.  I’ve practiced and studied with various meditation groups.  None of them have ever done anything more than try and help me in my own training while reinforcing the fact that nothing is to be believed unless you experience it to be true for yourself.
      As a result of my familiarity with meditation over the years, some things have become very clear to me.  For example, I’ve learned that one can continue practicing his or her chosen religion while carrying on meditation; in fact, it may very well improve one’s experience of spirituality in his or her faith, whether it is Protestant, Catholic, Judeo, or Buddhist.  One’s ability to focus, for instance, while praying, singing, or chanting may be enhanced.  Furthermore, your compassion to act in reducing the suffering of others may well be increased.  One of modern day life’s best models for working compassionately day in and day out, Mother Theresa, upon being asked how she prayed, responded by saying that she just listened.  When the reporter heard this reply, he asked her what she meant, and she told him that if he didn’t “know”, then there wasn’t any way she could explain it to him whereby he would understand.  However, anyone who practices mindfulness meditation would know that her method of praying was closely related to the technique of focusing on silence.
      Another insight that has come to me through meditative experience is respect for all life, specifically that of not harming other living beings.  I’ve learned that such a realization is not an idea but a “knowing” that one feels internally, throughout his or her core.  Whereas I grew up on a farm and was accustomed to killing animals such as chickens, rabbits, squirrels, pigs, sheep, and steers for food and later on had a career with the United States Air Force, I wasn’t prepared for the revelation I was about to experience during a meditation retreat in 1992. 
      Having gone outside to walk one day after lunch, I discovered myself to be automatically stepping over an army of ants crossing the path on which I was walking.  It was such a surprise to find myself doing that, for I’d never really cared anything about the life of insects before that occasion.  Moreover, if I’d stepped on them or not, it wouldn’t have mattered to me, but now I saw that it did and deeply so.  Since that time, I’ve found it really difficult to see anything being killed by others and have felt deep regret for the slaughter I’ve committed of helpless animals and insects in the past. 
      Furthermore, other things have occurred in my experience through the years to promote better happiness and tranquility as a result of practicing meditation without beliefs.  Whereas I used to become quite angry over things going wrong in my personal and professional life, this emotion seldom overwhelms me now.  Second, I find it much easier than ever before to let go of the inconsistencies that come up with English language students—what a relief!  Next, I find it rewarding to take more time to think through whatever I’d like to do before taking action.  Fourth, I’m much less ready to confront another person than I used to be, and when it’s necessary, I find myself doing it with a lot more tact, having already placed myself in his or her shoes.  Last, but most importantly, I’m much more consistent in personal relationships which has not always been the case.
      In conclusion, what has really made a difference in my life, as mentioned above, has been the practice of concentration, mindfulness, and loving kindness in meditation sessions.  Moreover, I’ve integrated them into my daily affairs and not just left them on the cushion as so many people, who don’t meditate, would probably think.  Also, one of the aspects of meditation that I really love is that it’s like the exploration of inner landscapes—you just never really know what you’re going to discover next.  Learning and employing meditational techniques does not mean blindly accepting the beliefs of any tradition; rather, it’s using what you “know” as a result of practice to function more happily and tranquilly in your everyday life.  It’s a demonstration of common sense.  One doesn’t have to become a Buddhist to improve your life through the use of meditation; even the Buddhists might prefer that you didn’t!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Where Kindness Truly Lies

      “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” so goes the golden rule, but do we really understand what the second part of that statement means?  Or should there also be a guideline that states “Do unto yourself as you would have others do unto you”?  Some might say that sounds selfish whereas others may comment that it expresses merit.  Although many of us have been taught as children to be “good” to others, the “kindness” factor, the “Do unto…,” somehow seems lacking in that teaching; however, as adults, we learn through practice and experience that being kind is a priceless and not so simple skill.
      There are, after all, certain qualities in “being kind” that not only include the idea of “being good” but also go beyond that notion.  For example, there’s the aspect of protecting oneself and others unconditionally just as an expectant mother would do so out of love for her baby.  Another characteristic of kindness is compassion, an attitude of preventing suffering.  Then as we see a part of ourselves or others change from being fearful, for example, into being confident and resolute, the kindness aspect expresses a feeling of appreciative joy, just like a mother praises a child’s achievements in life.  A fourth quality in being kind is treating the experience of life’s difficulties with equanimity; that is, not reacting but waiting until our feelings settle into a level that can be managed and then responding to what we’re facing appropriately with clarity, wisdom and nonharming.  Patience, an aspect of equanimity, is greatly involved.  One final characteristic of kindness must be spoken of here, and that is forgiveness.  It means that in being kind we approach all the difficulties we are feeling with the attitude of giving up the suffering of anger and resentment wherever it abides.
      Consequently, just as we find that in taking care of our health as a first priority for the sake of ourselves also takes care of others, should it not follow that treating ourselves kindly needs to be a top priority?  Many of us have heard and experienced the saying that “what goes around, comes around”, and in the case of being kind to ourselves, it may apply far more profoundly than we know.    When we feel, for example, peace within ourselves as a result of approaching our feelings of difficulty with all the aspects of kindness, it often radiates out to those among our family, friends and colleagues when they are experiencing life’s problems with us or others.  It’s certainly much easier to interact with them from a feeling of peace.  Random acts of kindness,
part of the saying we so often hear and see, comes from the understanding that grows from practicing this level of friendliness with ourselves.  For example, a woman in a hospice grief support group I was facilitating in San Antonio, reported that one day while she was feeling a great need to be “listened to”, she found another person on a bus also suffering from sorrow.  She expressed her kindness by “listening” to that person and thereby experienced a temporary respite from her own grief.  Just in giving “an ear”, she received what she so desperately needed on that day. 
      Finally, as we lie dying, may we not truly enter and embrace that state of our life with kindness instead of aversion and all of its emotions?  As many experts in death and dying say, we feel our life’s forces leaving us one by one, and as they do, approaching the fearful feelings we might have with the practice of kindness could offer us the comfort, wrapped in compassion and unconditional love, we desperately need.  Leaving our loved ones behind would not, perhaps, be enveloped in feelings of abandonment but a sensation of affection, whereas any anger and resentment for so-called enemies would have evaporated.  And all the while we lie dying, the degree of equanimity we would have developed over the years could hold us in a state of confidence and resolve to let nature take its course, even letting us approach it and what comes next with an attitude of curiosity.  Any regret for not having attained what we wanted in life might also have been released.  Truly, the dying process is the final test of kindness, for we also have an opportunity to be a model for others. 
      Learning, therefore, the priceless skill of “kindness” does include and goes quite beyond the idea of “being good to others” that many of us have been taught as youngsters.  We understand through our felt experience that using its characteristics in being kind to ourselves first before others makes it a top priority for being kind to others while living and dying.  Our world’s leaders would do well to learn the empirical lessons of kindness to oneself before attempting to negotiate peace with others.  In conclusion, if we truly wish to experience peace and happiness in our lives, we should try “being kind” to ourselves first.

Letting Go Of Those We Have Lost

      With the exception of very young children, all of us have experienced the loss of others in our lives.  While the feeling of loss for those who we have hardly known or known of is usually minimal, strong feelings are normally present for those with whom we’ve had a significant relationship.  The sensations we feel may range from real pain to that of joy.  More often than not, many of us may choose to avoid those feelings while others will wallow in them.  The point is, however, that if we learn to take a middle ground to consider those we have lost, we may just discover something amazing.
      For example, my mother passed away 13 years ago at the very mature age of 97, and I find it valuable to focus on her from time to time.  She was a farm woman, strong of mind, kind to her neighbors, religious, and of fervent opinions regarding life.  While she presented an excellent model for honesty and good work ethics, she certainly had a strong temperament and was prone to make human errors just as all of us do.  The good times that I remember are many, such as the wonderful meals she prepared, the time she took to talk and read to me, and the way she showed me how to interact with others.  When I was quite ill with bad colds or the flu, she took great care of me.  On the other hand, there were experiences that weren’t so great—after all, I was quite rebellious.  For example, she didn’t spare the rod or hold anything back in terms of tongue lashing.  Spending an occasional few minutes in a dark pantry was her form of ostracism along with some threats of being sent to the reform school.  The use of religious intimidation wasn’t out of her reach either.  All told, the good far outweighed the bad.
      In fact, learning to take the middle ground to consider Mom has given me the opportunity to see her in ways far differently than ever before.  First, I had to learn the technique which involves focusing on a state of mind between the experience of her loss and the freedom from the pain of that grief.  This involved concentrating on the in-between emotions and feelings, and absolutely none of the thoughts that came up during the process.  Having a background in concentration, mindfulness, and loving kindness techniques was very helpful.  Second, the initial experience was quite different from what I had previously encountered because of an increased need to center myself from my forehead down through the heart.  Finally, I learned that patience was a key factor while continuing to focus and let go of whatever came up.  It became quite clear to me that Mom had had a great hand in helping me to grow in so many ways, especially with unconditional love, compassion, non-harming, spirituality, and helping others throughout my life. 
      By taking this in-between state of mind to consider the experience I had with my mother, I’ve learned a great deal that has added to the mindfulness practice I follow.  It has allowed me to add a new channel for personal growth, so I adamantly recommend that others try this with the people they have lost.  Moreover, it is worthwhile to do this with other experiences we’ve had or are having, especially those that have to do with fear.  In conclusion, this life-long personal training without doubt prepares us for whatever comes our way in the course of daily living and, I would daresay, in our dying moments.