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I have tried many meditation techniques. There are distinct differences between techniques. Some are formal. Some are religious. Some require great effort.

Most meditation affects the brain, though benefits may vary or be disputed. A study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition identified 3 meditation categories, based on measured brain wave differences.

Under concentration or focus, they placed  types such as Zen and Vipassana.

Under the category of open monitoring is Mindfulness and Kriya Yoga.

Under self-transcending is Transcendental Meditation (TM).

I first became aware of TM like many Americans when The Beatles connected with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968. It was the Summer of Love and flower power was in full bloom and consciousness was being opened through TM and drugs. I didn’t take it very seriously.  The Maharishi got some criticism from stricter yogis who thought he went commercial. But it seemed to work for them.

The Maharishi died in 2008 but TM continues to promise health, stress relief and spiritual enlightenment and grow its followers. Transcendental Meditation is one specific form of silent mantra meditation.

I rediscovered, honestly just discovered, TM this year. It came to me through Jerry Seinfeld. Yes, the comedian.

Interview by Transcendental Meditation teacher Bob Roth
with Jerry Seinfeld discussing his 40+ years of practicing TM.

Celebrity TM practitioners still get more attention, but there are millions of ordinary folks using the technique. I think that many of them are like me and have tried other techniques but find TM to be completely different.

It never appealed to me with any mediation practices that you needed to “join,” pay money or continue to take classes with experts. I never took to strict rules or rigid practices.

Compared to other techniques, TM is almost effortless. It is easy to learn. Children adapt to it well.

Comparing it to my own Zen experiences, I immediately took to the idea of not having to concentrate. TM is not about the control of the mind. You don’t monitor your thoughts as in any mindfulness practice.

Thankfully, you don’t have to “empty your mind.” I had a lot of trouble with the empty mind and dismissing thoughts. In my last formal Zen session at a monastery, I finally relaxed because I just let the thoughts come – and stay.

My initial excitement with TM was cooled when I started to investigate deeper and found out that you are officially supposed to learn the technique through a standardized seven-step course over six days by a certified TM teacher at a cost of almost $1000. That shut me down.

TM requires that you use a mantra. You would think that you could make one up or get one from a friend who practices, but this item is something no TM practitioner is supposed to ever reveal. It starts to sound like a cult. I found online that:

It is important to receive the mantra from a fully trained Transcendental Meditation teacher because they have been given a selection of mantras which have been passed down through a long line of teachers over thousands of years. The effects are therefore well known both historically and currently to be always positive and life-enhancing.

I don’t like the sound of that.

But the Internet is the place where all knowledge now lives. Do some searching and you can find sites and videos on how to practice TM. You can find sites with mantras.

I suppose this unofficial path may be lacking something, but it works. After all. the seeking is part of finding the path.

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Shouldn’t relaxing be easy? But it’s not.

We live in stressful times, but I imagine that times have always been stressful. It could not have been relaxing to have lived in an age when you spent most of your waking day gathering food and trying to survive.

I  have written here a number of times about things that would fall under mental health or relaxation techniques, such as meditation. But I haven’t written about several of the ways I have tried to manage stress or even relax in order to sleep.

This was all inspired by watching a yoga class and seeing the people go into the Savasana or Corpse Pose. It is one that looks to be incredibly easy and yet is sometimes called the most difficult of the asanas. It is “simply” lying on the floor.

How easy is it for you to turn off stress and the world around you and just say, “I’m going to relax now” when you mind is racing with thoughts and your body is tense?

I know that some nights when I am trying to go to sleep and can’t, it seems like trying to relax is actually making me more stressed out.

Some people would tell you that relaxation can be zoning out in front of the TV. But brain research always shows that watching TV actually activates parts of the brain and doesn’t help the areas that control things like sleep. Of course, I will admit to falling asleep while watching TV, but it seems it is not so much the programs that are putting me into sleep mode.

Some relaxation techniques are not at all “New Age” thinking but the result of scientific research. The Mayo Clinic recommends some relaxation techniques.  One of those techniques is one I actually did first learn in a yoga class. The medical term would be progressive muscle relaxation. In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. I was taught that lying in that corpse pose, I should begin by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes. You then progressively work your way up your body – the calf muscles, knees, thighs, buttocks, fingertips, arm, shoulder, chest, neck and finally even the parts of your face. I was taught to tense muscles for a count of five seconds and then relax them completely before moving up the body.

Doing this while lying on a soft mat after a yoga workout made me want to take a nap. Though I no longer practice any true yoga, I do still use this technique when I want to fall asleep – both for a nap or a night’s sleep. It doesn’t work all the time, but it has about a 50% success rate for me.

Stimulating breath (sometimes called “bellows breath”) is often a yogic breathing techniques designed to raise energy and increase alertness rather than relax you.

Breathing should be easy. We do it all day without even thinking about it. Anyone who has taken a meditation class knows that thinking about breathing is something that is really emphasized. Though I never became convinced that counting my breath was helping me, several breathing exercises have stuck with me as practices.

Most of us breathe quite shallowly. Taking a deep breath is something out of the ordinary.  Sometimes we sigh a deep breath. the doctor asks us to take a few in our checkup. We suck in a big breath after exerting yourself physically. But it is extraordinary rather than ordinary.

Think about how someone who is hyperventilating is told to breathe into a paper bag. Though most of us take shallow breaths and deeper breaths is probably a good practice, hyperventilating is “overbreathing” and in that case it is not a good practice.

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is very simple and can be done at almost any time. Some people recommend it as a stress break while seated, perhaps at your desk. I know someone who told me that if he tries to do it before he goes to sleep, he rarely gets past 6 repetitions before he falls asleep.

Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
Exhale, completely emptying your lungs through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth, inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely again for a count of eight.
This one breath will have an exhalation that is twice as long as inhalation.

I know that this ratio of 4-7-8 is always said to be important, but I find the counting distracting. I modify it to an untimed maximum lung capacity inhalation, hold for four, and then totally empty my lungs. I had my wife time it once and it came out to be about 5-6-8 for me without counting, which is pretty close. A friend told me that rather than counting she repeats a phrase that times out at about the 4-7-8 cycles.

The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that is the opposite of the stress response. When the relaxation response is activated, your heart rate slows, breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your blood pressure drops or stabilizes, your muscles relax and blood flow to the brain increases. It is definitely something to strive for in your day and night.

 

A chapbook worth of years ago, I was taking instruction at a Zen Monastery. I had already tried Zen on my own and with some local groups. I was pretty well versed with the basics and thought it was time to get more serious with a residency.

On my first weekend retreat, we would wake up before dawn, eat a very quiet and basic breakfast before about 8 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent dinner in the zendo (oryoki) and some silent work practice.

When I the opportunity to talk 1:1 with the abbot, he asked me how my zazen was progressing. Za means “sitting.” Zen comes from the Sanskrit and means meditation. My early zazen was all about concentration and focusinf on following or counting my breath. But I thought I was ready to move to zazen as self-inquiry. That wasn’t going very well, I told him.

I explained that I could not seem to empty my mind  and though I could dismiss thoughts, another one soon replaced it.

“You have monkey mind,” he told me. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in the tree.”

It wasn’t an original observation. Monkey mind is a real thing. It is a phenomenon that is especially noticeable when you are trying hard to be still.

Being mindful and still is a good thing sometimes, but the monkey isn’t into it.

You need the monkey.  That brain lets you move from task to task and think fast. Pretty important in this fast-paced world. But you need to be able to turn off the monkey brain. Just like you need to turn off the TV news and music and conversations and life’s noise sometimes.

How do you do that? I have tried lots of “techniques” with limited success. One general approach is to give in to the monkey mind. That’s what I did at the monastery. I don’t mean that I stopped meditating. I gave the monkey some space.

When I’m writing, especially poetry,  I let the monkey take me other places.

When I want him to hop off the tree, I sometimes chant a little mantra. I sometimes meditate and focus on a point somewhere in the room. I especially like doing some walking meditation. That is kinhin which is often practiced between long periods of the sitting zazen meditation. I can walk and focus on something while the monkey follows me at a distance hopping from tree to tree beside and behind me.

 

Some people advise that you should tame the monkey. I’ve made peace with the monkey.

I’m not a Buddhist. At least, I don’t think I follow Buddhism closely enough these days to qualify for the title. I have studied the religion which is now represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha  as a religion and also use it as a philosophy.

A very simplified description of the teaching of Buddha is that life is permeated with suffering which is caused by desire. Suffering ceases when desire ceases. Enlightenment is obtained through right conduct. Wisdom and meditation releases one from desire and therefore, suffering.

I would contend that the path I followed through reading, meditation and even formal study at a Zen monastery was a path of philosophy rather than religion. I never accepted things like reincarnation. I like desire too much.  I consider my path to be a kind of American Buddhism. Some might say it is Western Buddhism.

I don’t use American Buddhism as a negative term, though some genuine Buddhists might see it as such. There are many uses of the word “Zen” attached to everything from playing tennis to the “Zen” of dogs and cats – that seem very wrong applications of Buddhism.  If you were really critical of American Buddhism, it would probably be because you consider it just a kind of self-help program to reduce stress.

It is difficult to define these things. What is Zen Buddhism? On zen-buddhism.net they say that “Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is impossible. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning.”

Nevertheless, I will say that Zen Buddhism was an outgrowth of Mahayana, the “meditation” sect of Buddhism. It developed in Japan from its earlier Chinese counterpart. It also divided into two branches.

Binzai is the more austere and aristocratie monasticism that emphasizes meditation on the paradoxes that people may know as koans. (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?)

The other branch is Sōtō which is probably the more popular following. It emphasizes ethical actions and charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, as well as meditation on whatever occurs as illumination.

The Buddhism that seemed to appeal to the American mind offered escape and engagement – two things that may seem to be in opposition. The idea of “10 minute mindfulness” should seem impossibly simplistic and unrealistic to anyone, but the concept sells books and fills workshops.

The latest book I have read related to Buddhism is by Robert Wright. In Why Buddhism is True, Wright uses biology, psychology and philosophy to show how meditation can lead to a spiritual life in a secular age.

You might not know that evolutionary psychology is a field of study. Wright combines it with neuroscience to show why he believes Buddhism is true, and how it can free us of delusions and save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.

In a earlier book, The Moral Animal, he wrote about how evolution shaped the human brain. Our mind is designed to sometimes delude us about ourselves and about the world in order to survive. Unfortunately, this leads to much unhappiness.

Some of this comes from natural selection which he says makes animals in general “recurrently dissatisfied.” It leads us to anxiety, depression, anger, and greed. Wright believes Buddhism was a kind of answer to natural selection.

If human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly, meditation can clarify that seeing and so will make us better, happier people.

I was first introduced to his new book through an interview with him on Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross asked Wright about how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting:

“This was in the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it’s true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It’s a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as “unsatisfactoryness.”

Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.

If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you’d feel blissed out, you’d never eat again. You’d have sex, you’d, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that’s not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it’s central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.”

An earlier book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, was what get me thinking a lot more about mindfulness.  He worked to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society and was the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The practice of “mindfulness” is a more than 2000-year-old Buddhist method of living fully in the present, observing ourselves, our feeling, others and our surroundings without judging them.

I read his book Wherever You Go There You Are when it wa first published during a time when I was more into formal study of Zen and meditation.

I liked that it treated meditation as a natural activity that can be practiced anytime and anywhere. No joining a group, no props or special cushions.

Mindfulness and living in the moment can be improved with techniques such as “non-doing” and concentration.

Like defining Buddhism, these terms are simple but complex. Non-doing is very different from doing nothing. We live very much in a “doer” culture, and in such a place non-doing is a big change. Sitting down to meditate, even for a short time, is a time for non-doing, but it means you will be “working” at consciousness and intention. Anyone who has ever tried to “empty their mind” knows how very difficult that can be.

There are several chapters in the book on parenting as a form of meditation – and children as “live-in Zen masters.”

I think Kabat-Zinn would agree with Wright on how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull we have toward dissatisfaction:

What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. … By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that’s just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That’s an amazing thing — that it can work.


More

Listen to the interview with Wright on npr.org

Read “What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t” by Adam Gopnik – The New Yorker

Last autumn I wrote here about the idea of “forest bathing,” which sounds like it might require getting naked in the woods and some water. It doesn’t.

The practice began in Japan in the early 1990s and was known as Shinrin-yokuwhich translates roughly as forest bathing.

More recently I heard an NPR story about someone who went for a forest bathing adventure on the pocket of forest outside Washington D.C., Theodore Roosevelt Island, on the Potomac River. If that doesn’t sound wild enough that seems to be part of the point of the activity.

You don’t need hundreds of acres of forest or water or miles of trails or a destination. You probably don’t need a certified forest therapy guide either, though some guidance is always helpful.

Forest bathing is about slowing down and becoming immersed in the natural environment. Immersed is a good word. It does mean to plunge into a liquid, but the dictionary also says to involve deeply, absorb and to baptize. In a good forest bath, you would plunge into the smells, textures, tastes and sights of the forest. Touch the tree bark, smell the pine needles, loam or the black walnuts, taste the mulberries.

It is meant to cleanse the mind of the accumulated mental detritus from the outside world.

One of the exercises that might be done in your bath time is the body scan. It is a technique I learned many years ago in a mindfulness workshop. It can be done any place, but in a natural setting it will take on another dimension.

Lie on your back, legs uncrossed, arms relaxed at your sides, eyes open or closed. Focus on your breathing for about two minutes until you start to feel relaxed. Then, turn your focus to the toes of your right foot. Notice any sensations you feel while continuing to also focus on your breathing. Imagine each deep breath flowing to your toes. Remain focused on this area for one to two minutes.

Think of this as a guided meditation, though easily self-guided. You move focus to the sole of your right foot, then right ankle, and move up to your calf, knee, thigh, hip, and then repeat the sequence for your left leg.

When I first tried this I was so relaxed by the time I had moved up my torso, through my back, chest and shoulders, that when I tried to focus on my head, scalp and hair, I fell asleep. That is not what is supposed to happen, but it did. I have used the technique to fall asleep on nights when my brain can’t shut down.

A body scan is not a trick. It is a way to shift your focus and train your mind to go where you want it to go. In an age of many distractions, being able to control when you want to let your mind wander (which can be a creative thing) and avoiding drifting into worry and doubt is a powerful ability.

This all sounds very “new age” and a lot of people unfortunately use that term in a disparaging way. They lump together everything from well-documented practices like yoga and meditation to more fringe practices. For example, many people would probably dismiss aromatherapy and yet we all experience emotional responses to aromas in our lives – the smell of baking bread, the scent of herbs you brush against in a garden or the pine forest you walk through.

Forest bathing is being studied as an alternative kind of therapy or medicine. The NPR story I heard said that a 40 minute walk in the forest is associated with improved mood and feelings of health and a real decrease in levels of the stress hormone cortisol .Excess stress can play a role in headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma, and arthritis, among many other ailments.

The idea of trying in your day to “Be here, not there” seems so simple, but is so difficult for most of us.

Henry David Thoreau knew that his little Walden woods didn’t need to be very far from Concord to be an escape. I have my own nearby small woods that certainly doesn’t qualify as a forest but allows me to turn off the outside world. It is more than walking or meditating or being mindful in your home, office, or on city streets. Those are all good things to practice, but this is about being in the natural world.



Listen to “A Crash Course in Body Scan Meditation” for a guided body scan.

Learn more about forest therapies at natureandforesttherapy.org. Perhaps you might even become a guide one day.

Teresa of Ávila s a young woman by François Gérard, 1826

Last March 28, I saw on a website that it was the birthday of St. Teresa of Ávila. I’m not a “religious” person these days in the sense of an organized religion, but I have an odd relationship with St. Teresa.

It started when I was 13 and attended “Sunday school” at St. Leo’s Church in Irvington, New Jersey . The year I was 13 I had for my class a young and kind nun. Those two qualities set Sister Teresa Avila apart from all the other nuns.

I knew nothing about the real Saint Teresa of Ávila whom she was named after until many years later. The Saint Teresa (28 March 1515 – 4 October 1582), was a prominent Spanish mystic, Roman Catholic saint, Carmelite nun and author during the Counter Reformation, and theologian of contemplative life through mental prayer.

Teresa grew up in a wealthy household in the province of Ávila, Spain. She was a beautiful and social girl who loved her privileged life, perfume, jewelry, and elegant clothes. Her mother died when she was 14, and her father sent her to convent school to protect his beautiful daughter.

Perhaps surprisingly, she found the religious training very appealing and she decided to become a nun.

After twenty increasingly important years, she established her own monastery, She then traveled around Spain on a donkey, setting up 16 new monasteries for women. She also wrote several books, including The Way of Perfection (1566) and The Interior Castle (1580).

One day in my thirteenth year, I had forgotten a homework assignment for Sunday school catechism class. Sister Teresa told me to go home, get the assignment, bring it to the convent and ask for her. The nun who answered my knock at the convent door went to get Sister Teresa.

When Sister Teresa Avila appeared she was not wearing her nun’s habit. I can only imagine how my face must have looked.

She was beautiful. She had long, dark, shiny hair. She asked me for my assignment which was in my hand. I was frozen. It probably took me a few seconds to respond but it felt like a lot longer.

I was in love with her in the way that a boy of 13 can be in love with an adult woman. I don’t know in what way a boy can be in love with a nun.

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini , 1652

In college I took a course about religion in literature and although it was taught by a religion professor, it was the most influential literature course I took as an English major. Along with novels, we read religious works including The Wisdom of the Sufis, The Dark Night of the Soul  by Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa’s The Interior Castle.

The Interior Castle was inspired by a Saint Teresa’s mystical vision of a crystal castle with seven chambers, each representing a different stage in spiritual development. She immediately wrote her book which is divided into seven parts (also called mansions, dwelling places or chambers) Each level brings you closer to God.

Entrance into the first three mansions is achieved by prayer and meditation. The fourth through seventh mansions are considered to be mystical or contemplative prayer. The soul achieves clarity in prayer and a spiritual marriage with God in the seventh mansions.

Of course, as I read the book my thoughts often returned to Sister Teresa rather than Saint Teresa. The two have remained blurred in my mind. I imagine Sister Teresa before she took the veil as a beautiful young girl much like the Teresa of Avila in 1529.

 

Over the years, both Teresa’s have been in my thoughts and have been alluded to in other works. Simone de Beauvoir writes about Teresa as a woman who lived her life for herself in her book The Second Sex. George Eliot compared the character Dorothea to St. Teresa in Middlemarch. Thomas Hardy took Teresa as the inspiration for much of the heroine Tess (Teresa) in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a character who in one scene lies in a field and senses her soul ecstatically above her.

Saint Teresa appears in a few contemporary songs: “Theresa’s Sound-World” by Sonic Youth  and in “Saint Teresa” by Joan Osborne.

But none of those allusions have had as much of an impact on me as reading The Interior Castle through the lens of a 13 year-old boy discovering another kind of love.

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