Unplugging in the Sensual Garden

I’ve just returned from four days of camping, hiking and relaxing in and around Ithaca, NY. You may have seen someone wearing a t-shirt that says “Ithaca is Gorges” and now I really get it.¬† Below is just one of many amazing shots I got at one of the local parks:

It was hard to walk more than 10 feet without lifting the camera to take a shot! It was enchanting and mesmerizing, and after a while I couldn’t even take another photo — just drank in the sound, the energy, the motion and the sense of history that was held in the rocks and the water that split them in two.

It was also a time of no cell phone, no computer, no TV except for a little bit on our last luxury hotel night. And it was a perfect time to be reading Lama Surya Das’s new book Buddha Standard Time. In it he talks about how we can live in this hectic, plugged-in world and still find ways to connect with our natural rhythms, a big focus of my writing and coaching.

Spending time in natural settings is one of the best ways to re-attune with inner rhythms and your connection to the world around you. If you haven’t had a chance to get away yet this summer, or if that getaway time was filled with family, friends and activities, I invite you to step outside sometime today. If you don’t have a yard or quiet space at home, find a local park, stream or patch of grass. Take your shoes off and feel the ground. Turn your phone off and gaze at the sky or any tree or shrub that catches your attention. Be with just that for a few minutes — breathe it in, develop a relationship with it for this period of time. Look down and see what insects might be crawling around, doing their little bug thing. Smell the air and let the fragrance inhabit your body. Move in ways that you usually don’t — slower, more mindfully, as if you have all the time in the world.

Just because vacation time is over, don’t think you can’t take the time to be attuned to anything but your schedule. Make moments of refuge in your busiest day, and feel the power of how taking some time back helps expand the time ahead of you. And if getting outside feels impossible right now, then I invite you to step into this gorgeous landscape from the arboretum at the Cornell Plantations, another big part of my recent sensory vacation:

Why Meditate?

I have been swimming in the waters of holistic living and spiritual exploration for so long that I can take certain things for granted. In a funny way, I figure if I know something then it is common knowledge, something I simply picked up from the ethers of human awareness. Ummm, actually no. And things I think are self-evident are not always so.

Take meditation, for example. Yes, there has been a lot of positive press about it over the past couple of decades, and yes it is often linked with concepts like serenity, self-awareness, clarity and wisdom. But along with that are many misconceptions about what it is, what it isn’t, and why it actually helps.

One point of confusion is that there are many forms of meditation. There are guided meditations and visualizations for healing and pain relief. There are metaphysical meditations that focus on angelic realms and out-of-body experiences. There are shamanic meditations that bring you into altered states to gain information from plant and animal spirits. And there is mindfulness meditation, which is what I want to address in this post.

My own relationship to meditation has been fraught with challenges, stops and starts, frustrations and wide swaths of time spent avoiding the cushion at all costs. Sometimes I find myself switching forms depending on the whim of the moment, whatever feels easiest or most comforting. Other times I’m just too damn lazy, or have convinced myself that I’m meditating any time I’m fully immersed in what I’m doing at any moment — washing dishes, folding laundry, reading a book. True to a point, but I also know very well that there is much to be gained in developing a consistent practice, and that discipline is what my often laissez-faire approach to life is crying for to create balance and clarity.

So what keeps me struggling? Because it is simple but not easy. Because it shows me exactly how wild and erratic my mind truly can be. Because I’d rather read stories of other people’s mental acrobatics and inner battles than experience my own. Because, as any meditator will tell you, actually getting your tush on the cushion is 90% of the battle.

Meditation is not about clearing your mind of all thoughts, although you may get there from time to time, and more so with practice. Meditation is not a magic state that most people sit and just pop into at will within thirty seconds of sitting on the beautiful new cushion that they carefully chose for this very purpose. Meditation is the act of harnessing your awareness to a specific point of focus, usually the breath, and continuing to point your mind towards that point of focus over and over and over and over again for a specific period of time. Simple, but not easy, as anyone who has tried it can attest to.

So why meditate? Why, if it is so difficult and frustrating, if it is a mirror that shows all of our mental warts and wrinkles, would we want to do it at all?

Because, as the Buddha skillfully pointed out, all life contains suffering, our attachment to wishing it was different makes the suffering worse, and there is a path to freedom from suffering. And that path is paved by developing awareness of what our minds do and training our awareness in various ways so we can learn to abide in the spaciousness that rests beneath the busyness. It’s like the relationship of waves to the ocean — on the surface there may be turbulence and rough passage, but beneath that is depth and cool stillness.

Meditation helps us find the depth and cool stillness that resides within each of us beneath the turbulence of our thoughts, desires and grasping to control outcomes. Meditation gives us a base from which we can learn skillful ways of working with our most stubborn, negative, arrogant and disturbing thoughts. When we learn to ride the waves and not fall off our board, weaving through the tunnels and riding in with the foam, we gain confidence. We gain compassion for those who fall more often and with less humor. We gain clarity about our abilities and our strength, and learn to know when it’s OK to go back in and when we need to just wait out a storm.

Meditation is a great adventure. Even a “bad” meditation, where you spend the entire time realizing that you can’t stay focused on your breath for even 5 seconds without thoughts crashing in, is a “good” meditation because you took your seat. It’s called a practice because you have to keep doing it to gain any benefit. Sometimes the benefit is simply in knowing that you made the effort. And over time, with skilled instruction, you deepen the benefits by deepening your ability to both ride the waves and plumb the depths.