At Huckentor already the bilberries - 'whorts' as we call them in Devon – are hanging out little pink Chinese lanterns. The berries will be even earlier than usual this year; maybe June, and no doubt I'll forget again.
|here - photo Beatrice Grundbacher|
Meditation and I have a longstanding, turbulent and at times dysfunctional relationship (though I admit the turbulence and dysfunction are all on my side). As a young hippy growing up in a pocket of surprisingly alternative rural North Devon – early Earth Fairs, squats and music, wholefood shops, small festivals and ashrams – I came across meditation as a teenager. It seemed to me to legitimise what I already did so well and at great length: daydreaming, only with a candle and/or mantram as focus I could call it 'spiritual' and feel nicely virtuous for doing what I loved doing.
My experience with Zen meditation came as a huge shock to me. As an undergraduate I rather timidly asked to visit the local sangha and join the zazen sesshin. First session: 6 or 8 very stern-seeming, serious and sober men, older than me and terrifyingly composed (never my forte), plus the most wonderful roshi, the Rev Hofuku Hughes who came up from the London Zen Priory every week to run a session. Hofuku, a full time monk, nonetheless worked part-time in a local car factory, was enormously insightful, and had a bellydeep laugh and a vast sense of humour. Because of him, I stayed for a term, but it was hard. Zen meditation as practised by that group involved 45 minutes to an hour of silent meditation, facing the wall, eyes open, and guided to do nothing other than follow the breath. This was followed by walking meditation, kinhan I think the term is (never been good at the labels), and then more open-eyed sitting.
This was a long way from my gentle visualisations.
I continued with my own path, a kind of mishmash added to by other spiritual practices, for many years on an erratic basis. Although by now I had realised that actually meditation wasn't just daydreaming and relaxation, I still mostly used a visualisation practice as the heart of it all. Then I started to feel that this was another way (for me) to avoid the core act of simple and unadulterated presence. I know that it's different for each of us, but for me I need a way that involves a kind of emptying to the present rather than filling; and for all these long years Zen has sat behind everything I do: saying nothing, not being exhibitionist or drawing attention to itself; simply being (of course).
When I came across Jon Kabat-Zinn's teachings on mindfulness I knew that here was also a homecoming. Kabat-Zinn, a doctor, uses mindfulness practice in his work (and has spawned a school of MBSR: mindfulness-based stress reduction; it has been shown over and over to be enormously effective in health and wellbeing). This is a very important aspect of it.
But also I need a practice that is more than simply tending my psychological wellbeing – that for me is a bonus, not the goal. It's something about the integration of the spiritual with the psychological. I need too to touch the ground of being behind everything: to slip the traces of the 'I' and its struggles; to attempt to move beyond our dualistic perceptions of 'self' and 'other'. So finally I have found a practice that works for me in returning to the simplest of Zen teachings, partly through Zen poetry and sometimes through its prose writings (I have a wonderful book by roshi John Daido Loori, late abbot of the Mountains and Rivers Monastery, sent me by a dear friend: Zen and Creativity, which is a luminous practice text), which I couple with mindfulness of this moment and the world of the senses, to stop me flying off into daydreaming, and I open and close my meditation sessions with teachings from the British pagan tradition with its visualisations and awareness of the elements, the four directions (plus the above and the below), the natural world, and the interconnectedness of all beings. All these teachings are linked by the centrality of the development of compassion.
But there are two key things for me: one is that the heart of it all is simply learning how to be, with my breath, with what is, without losing myself in dreams and regrets from the past, or hopes and fears for the future; and the second is that the real work starts when formal meditation time ends.
And of course, after all these years (30+), I still struggle (or at least I would, had I not decided to give up striving a few months ago, partly as a result of a conversation with said friend – thank you, Susie). One thing that's gone is my beating myself up if I don't meditate every day (I simply don't do it every day). And rather like with writing: once I give myself permission to meditate on only five rather than seven days a week, and just for ten minutes if that's what I feel like, it works, and I want to do more. So what happens now is that I meditate most days: sometimes I touch the ground of being where self and other dissolve; mostly I don't. AND THAT'S OK.
What made me think about all this this morning is being aware, once again, how hard it is simply to keep my attention on my breath, coming in and going out, which is usually the starting focus in Zen practice. Over and over my attention wanders; like training a young horse, I gently follow it, gently bring it back. It is so simple; and it is sooo hard. I read the other day that the average American adult attention span is 18 seconds (I don't suppose it's very different here), and that shocked me into being aware of how difficult it is simply to be fully present with, and only with, my inbreaths and outbreaths to just a count of 10! I count and breathe slowly but was still shocked at myself, at how my mind wanders. So my challenge now is to prove to myself that I can.
And here, just to finish off (if you're still with me) is Kabat-Zinn's rather lovely (paraphrased) definition of mindfulness: paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and without judgement.