Saturday, August 4, 2012

The no-school school -- does it work?

From various sources I've listened to, there are apparently a number of ways to approach meditation. Learning how to meditate is just like the way to learn anything else. There are many, many ways to do it, and each person probably needs a different approach. One way, the way I've been trying, is the "no-school" approach. First, to let you know -- I am forever a beginner at meditation. I only practice several times a week, 15 minutes at a time, so I am not a devoted practitioner by any definition!

So here's a sample of my own do-it-yourself way. I approach meditation from a number of different directions to keep it fresh. Sometimes I focus on my breath. Other times, I focus on my senses and bodily sensations. I may meditate with eyes open or closed. I may have a stream of consciousness type of thinking, or I may try to sit without thinking. (Nearly impossible for me -- I need lots more practice.) I try to notice when I am becoming less alert. I know that Buddhists have all sorts of technical terms to measure the quality of meditation, alertness and a broad or narrow focus.

The things that are generally constant for me are that I start by reading the day's Upper Room Bible verse devotional, and lately, reading a pithy Buddhist saying or two. Both of these are apps on my phone. (Sample of Buddha saying, a bit like what you'd find in a Chinese fortune cookie: "In a controversy the instant we feel anger we have already ceased striving for the truth, and have begun striving for ourselves.") I ask to be in the presence of God. I usually sit outside, even if it's 100 degrees. (I can take it, in the shade, for at least 15 minutes! I am a South Texan, after all.) Outdoors is where I find the best quality of relaxation and also the most awareness of God. As a result of sitting outdoors, my legs are quite bug-bitten at the moment.

I don't know if this no-school approach is ideal, however. I take my cue from weightlifting, to which I have devoted considerably more time and energy for the past five years or more. I started weightlifting on my own, with a weight bench that we keep in the garage, which is currently gathering all manner of dirt and cobwebs, and which has probably become a home for a variety of small creatures. During the years I used it, I thought I was doing great and achieving amazing results! Then I went to work for a small-town paper that had a novel approach to employee health, and offered a personal trainer and weight/cardio room for every employee at no charge. I used the weight room for quite a while before deciding to also try out the trainer. I wasn't sure I would really like her, or benefit from her, or something! And, of course, she turned out to be the type of odd conservative person that this rural nook of the world breeds: anti-vaccine, very Tea Party (this is before the Tea Party had become a force in national politics), and so on. Some of her views, I could understand; a few (grass-fed beef is great and everyone should work out), I could agree with. The others, totally out there.

But she was definitely on her A game when it came to personal training. The trainer, it turns out, really opened my eyes to the shortcomings of my "no-school" homegrown workouts. She showed me some excellent and basic form techniques that greatly improved the quality and safety of my weightlifting efforts. One that's easy to convey and remember is this: Chin up, chest out! Keep the back slightly arched to protect it when lifting weights or squatting. Engage the abs as well to prevent a back injury. Now, when I'm lifting heavy bags of dogfood (for our Chihuahua) at the grocery store, I automatically engage my abs first and try to keep the weight close to my body. It's become a habit.

The first time I trained with her, my thighs were trembling uncontrollably from the effort of achieving the proper depth of squatting! I wasn't squatting any weight, either. How humiliating. (I had been doing shallow squats on my own that weren't working my muscles nearly as effectively.) My reaction? I loved the challenge! I know I am a much better weightlifter now, because I had a personal trainer who went from using a broad brush to correcting small form breaks while I was doing my reps.

Therefore, I suspect that my do-it-yourself approach to meditation may be unsatisfactory, as well. I know there are basic techniques that I could use from experienced practitioners to strengthen my approach and lead to more results. So why don't I? That, my dear, would take effort and time on my part. I would need to either drive somewhere to get lessons, or find lessons online. Now, I have several meditation exercises on my Zencast podcast that I have listened to, so I am not completely uninitiated. By the way, it's a bit tricky to listen to these while driving. Sort of like listening to a hypnosis session -- not completely advisable. It would be most helpful, though, to have a personal trainer that I could spend meditation sessions with.

Given that "my time" is what I love best to hoard and cling to, I'm not sure that finding meditation training will be my top priority anytime soon! In fact, managing my precious time is quite honestly what is keeping me from more than 15 minutes, several times a week, of meditation practice. Because my time is so special (think Tolkien's Gollum and the ring, his own "My Precious"), I find it hard to spend it doing nothing. It's odd how devoted I still am to "my time," given that the entire concept is an illusion! Nothing is mine, and there is no time, and it's not under my control anyhow, so I'm not sure what is enthralling my mind so completely. But to this day, when the day is not going according to my little roadmapped schedule, I find myself becoming anxious.

Every day, I have a little mental checklist of my own creation that must be gone through. These are the things I do during my discretionary time, outside of work and the like. Lately, it's been something like this, depending on the day of the week: Go see Dad. Check. Watch the Olympics. Check. Work out. Check. Do housework. Check. While driving, listen to Joseph Campbell's interviews with Bill Moyers on the power of mythology in the morning (after spending 15-20 minutes of driving time in prayer); listen to the third book in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series in the afternoon, while driving. Check. Do something to connect with my husband and children. Check. Go on an evening walk. Check. Spend some time volunteering. Check. Etc., etc. You get some idea of how regimented I like to keep my schedule. When life interferes with all that, I get mad!

As far as finding meditation training? I am starting a 9-month contemplative prayer study with a group at church that I think will have to suffice. By the way, I love the curriculum we are using. It transcends the usual problems with a Bible study of radically different interpretations. Our group study started with 6 weeks of spiritual and prayer practices that we went through, and the group members will be the same for the 9-month study. I pray for these people every day and feel so close to them in spirit as a result.

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