Thursday, May 3, 2012

Meditation for Mountain Climbers

Meditation is like climbing a mountain. Long before you take your first step, there arises the desire and interest in mountaineering. You may very likely need or want to take mountaineering classes and build up your skills and stamina on local area hills and smaller mountains. The really big stuff is high above the tree line and high above the normal oxygen range and at the peak is sometimes described as the “death zone” (because of insufficient oxygen). Mountain climbing is not for wussies.

So in the beginning of one’s life of meditation you may read books and talk a lot about meditation and the philosophy of meditation. Many people read lots of books on Vedanta philosophy, eastern religions, karma, reincarnation, gurus and states of altered (higher) consciousness. Too many people, in fact, stay at this comfortable, arm-chair level, content to use their imagination and the thrill of contemplating realities far beyond their present (and possibly not very fulfilling) reality.

I’ve taught hundreds of people to meditate and my fellow teachers, together, perhaps several thousand. We know firsthand how difficult it is for students to finally take a step to learn to meditate; then actually do it themselves; and finally sustain their daily practice for extended periods, what to mention for their lifetime. It’s not easy.

And, what is their biggest complaint? Hands down, it’s the “monkey mind.” Our Darwinian impulse to remain focused on self-defense and self-interest, desires and ambitions and sensory satisfactions is overwhelming; more so in today’s electrostatic environment of over stimulation and electronic overload. 

Hence the popularity of yoga and meditation retreats both at home and at attractive destinations from resorts to the Himalayas. We are desperate, as it were, to get “out of our skin” (which is, to say, out of our heads).

Simple fact is: you have to genuinely want to calm down. And that’s just the negative incentive. And that’s not enough. The positive incentive is what has to be continually, repeatedly, and forever (well, ok, not forever) reinforced. And here’s another earthquake fault: the ways to describe that incentive are limitless. Finding God, achieving liberation, nirvana, cosmic consciousness, samadhi, inner peace, my higher Self……well, you get the picture. And all of those are so foreign and out of touch with the preoccupations of daily life, emotions, and thoughts that these concepts (all mental, merely — and hence you see the trap — the monkey mind still wins!) are rarely sufficient to suffice.

“All right all ready,” you say? “What am I supposed to do?” To become a doctor in today’s society requires intensive commitment. Very few are interested and among those who entertain the idea (with relish, that is), only a few actually attempt it; fewer accomplish it. So, in truth, there is no easy way out because, in the end, no one can meditate for you and no one can provide what amounts to the desire for what you perceive the goal of meditation to be. You have to want to meditate and to achieve the goal promised by it.

Now let my monkey mind reverse directions and remind you that “meditation is the most natural thing in the world.” For yogis, that is! No, I prefer to be real and honest. And that means this: yes it IS the most natural thing in the world when you want to do it! Pure and simple.

To want to meditate means also to understand how to do it and where it leads. Otherwise you may fall by the wayside out of false expectations and poor training. But as we turn back to our mountaineering theme, let us also acknowledge the fear factor: the ego is convinced that it is going to "die" up on that mountain. And, in fact, it, as such, is right. For what it doesn't know is that it has no true substance apart from the soul. And it is the soul that will come to live on the mountain heights. (Ask any real mountain climber why he or she climbs? It's to get into that zone where everything else falls away and the mind is completely in the Present moment.)

So let’s get back to mountaineering. There are mountaineers who are famous for climbing to rarified heights without oxygen. Calming the body-mind-spirit to sit in silence in the rarified atmosphere of what I like to call pre-thought consciousness takes serious brain training.

Ok, you are now sitting reading this stupid article. (Oops, did I say something wrong?) Stop, look at the screen, and place your mind in “listening mode.” (When we stop to listen intently and intensely, we automatically stop our thoughts. So try it — NOW — monkey-face!) From right now and throughout this day (or tomorrow if you are an insomniac), I want you to STOP, LOOK, LISTEN at least once an hour. Stare ahead, looking up slightly, open your mouth just slightly, and listen inside your right ear almost as if straining to hear a distant or soft voice or sound. Doesn’t your mind stop for a moment?

If you are slightly more “together,” you could add to this technique being simultaneously aware of the center of your body from the navel to the sternum (and not just the outside but more towards the inside and center). This additional tweak will help you feel grounded and avoid getting too mental or spacey.

If you want to add even more to this practice, inhale slowly first, and then do the above while gently and calmly holding your breath. As you exhale continue the practice and follow through at least one full, slow and calm breath cycle.

Ok, so that’s monkey-mind training. If in your actual meditation, sitting time you are to achieve a daily experience of the rarified heights of pre-thought consciousness, you need to take sips and allow the monkey-mind to get acquainted and comfortable with being a SEER, one who sees.

You can also periodically just turn your head and stare briefly out the window, as if (but in fact NOT) thinking about something. Don’t day-dream because then the subconscious flow of images and thoughts takes over and that means “losing our mind.”

You see when we “look” at objects we normally are constantly reacting, assessing, analysising, and comparing them to other mental images (memories and associations, likes and dislikes). Thus we create a psychic world of our own that substitutes for the actual images we are viewing and which stimulate this procreative imagining. So learn to practice “looking” without mental activity. Just simply look. No mental words or feelings.

So, again, back to mountaineering. Here are the steps, the Eight-Fold Path of Meditation Mountaineering:
  1. Get your “butt in gear.” Take meditation training somewhere, learn how to sit (floor, chair, ceiling, etc.). Don’t just buy some dumb CD or book just anywhere because you happen to see it or it’s cheap or free. Make sure you feel confidence and even inspiration from the source: the teacher, the technique, the philosophy behind each. Get the right equipment (gear): meditation pillow, shawl, headphone, ear plugs, meditation bench---whatever it takes, spend it, get it, do it.
  2. Get your intention aligned. In your training (see 1. Above) understand and internalize the purpose and inspiration behind meditation. Make it your own. Begin seeing yourself and describing yourself, mentally and to others, as a meditator; as a yogi; as a seeker; etc. Understand, accept and integrate your goal as your self-identity. Get the right meditation clothes, even. Set up a meditation room or corner with all the trimmings: pictures, candle, flowers, the whole bit. Don’t hold back. (Yes, later you will shed all that but right now you are at the bottom of the mountain and you need to get your gear together. You will need a strong intention to guide you and sustain you in the tough climb ahead.)
  3. Start your training. Meditate twice a day and kick your own butt when you don’t. No matter how often and with what lousy excuses (or good ones) you have for failing, get up and keep going. Meditate with other people if at all possible and no less than weekly, if at all possible. Don’t be a slob with whatever technique and routine you’ve committed to. Do it and do it right and do it how you were taught. It could save your “life” when you are up on the mountain. Don’t be a f___-up. No beginner climbs alone. Climb with others. Find a real teacher: one who gives not just canned training but personalized training. We call 'em moutaineer gurus.
  4. Now, we begin the climb to base camp. With your basic training as your foundation, you are going to leave your comfortable and familiar environment and world of thoughts, feelings, and activities. Everything you’ve ever been is to be left behind. It will all be exposed and will die on the mountainside and will prove not only useless, but dangerous on the steep slopes ahead and above you. So drop it. This fourth stage involves immersing yourself in the determinedly focused rhythm of climbing steadily and living in the subtler region of calm, pure feelings: whether while meditating or during daily activities. You must get used to being non-reactive, even-minded, quietly cheerful UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. Your life depends on it for at any moment a crevasse of danger or a landslide of ego ambitions can kill you and end your climb. This region Patanjali calls “pranayama,” referring to refinement of feeling which is reflected in quieting the heart and breath towards their cessation in the higher states to come.
  5. As you ascend into steeper, rougher, and higher terrain, you find it difficult to breathe deeply and the need to stay focused on every step. Every step is an effort. This stage, called pratyahara (shutting off the senses and our mind’s constant response to them), requires laser-like focus of the mind in the Present Moment. It means ignoring or transcending the body’s demands for rest and its complaints about aches, pains, and fatigue. You need to keep moving up and the secret lies in focusing the mind and turning away and ignoring random thoughts that will distract you and cause you to fall, perhaps thousands feet below to your death.
  6. You are now getting frequent glimpses of the peak above you. It comes and it goes, but as you climb it is increasingly in your sights. It draws you like metal filings to a magnet. You are getting your “second wind” in this stage Patanjali calls dharana (concentration).
  7. Now you are nearing the top and beginning to enter the “death zone” of ego. There is very little oxygen here and you are fueled by your identification with the goal. You are becoming the goal: the consciousness of peace, energy, love or vibrating and entering the cosmic sound of Aum or the eternal Light which creates, sustains, and withdraws all things in creation.
  8. We have the peak itself. No words will describe this. You must fill in “the blank.”

Nayaswami Hriman