Sunday, May 8, 2011

Misconceptions About Meditation & MBSR

First of all, thanks to all who supported my team in the Marin Human Race. We raised over $10,000 for the Commonweal Cancer Help Program!

I have gotten a wide variety of feedback about my new foray into teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). For the most part, people are supportive and excited about my new frontier of exploration, but some are questioning my orientation. I suspect that this doubt is a sign of misunderstanding. The most common misconception people seem to have about MBSR is that it is "simple" and hence boring. This is totally not so! MBSR is simple indeed, that's the beauty of it, but it is not simplistic. If you think this, consider what I said in my blog post on January 30th, "If You're Bored, You're Not Paying Attention."

At the root of MBSR is the profound practice of cultivating awareness. There is no other practice, as far as I'm concerned. I don't care if awareness gets re-packaged and called Continuum, Yoga, Tango, Chi Gung, Transcendental Meditation (TM), or basket weaving; it's all the same practice. I think it's great that there are at least 5,762 ways (this is a random number, please don't quote me like it's a fact) to access awareness of the present moment. I think of these different approaches as "doorways." Each of us is attracted to a different set of conditions, a different portal, and we find the one we fit through most easily. The depth to which we take a practice is dependent on our desire and ability, and not the approach we use.

The concepts taught in Continuum are not readily experienced by everyone. For those of you who have tried and feel like you don't understand Continuum, MBSR is a portal to develop the perceptual ability to appreciate much of what is taught in Continuum, as well as a way to cultivate embodiment in general.

Some people enjoy structure. They might love a Tai Chi class where they practice the same sequence of movements in every class, led by a teacher in the front of the room, who guides them every step of the way. There is power in this sacred form, as long as you move freely inside of it, and don't give up your own experience to move just like the teacher, or to perfectly execute the form.

I'm a bit of an anarchist, and I tend to not like having a leader tell me what to do, unless it's something I'm still learning and it's totally new to me. I prefer a very unstructured class with a lot of independent study and exploration. I'll take a 6-hour long Continuum dive with little or no instruction, or a day-long silent meditation session any day. For some people this would be ineffective; their attention would get easily diffuse and wander without structure. They might feel lost, stuck, or bored in a long Continuum dive or meditation retreat. There's nothing wrong with this. In fact, the awareness of feeling this way is really important for this person to guide their life. Water is somewhat useless without some sort of a container. We all get to choose whether we want our water in a glass, in a bottle, in the palm of our hand, in a bowl, in a river bed, or from a water fountain. No judgment; just different ways of accessing the same thing.

Some folks tell me that they think MBSR is too "dry." (Many don't think this, but it has come up often enough that I'd like to address those who have this conception.) I'd like to point out that this is probably a thought, not necessarily an experience of awareness. It is easy to get caught up in ideas about the body and miss the actual experience of being embodied. The container might be too stiff for some people's preferences, but the contents of MBSR is within each participant and not in the structure of the class, and is therefore fluid in nature.

All the various approaches to meditation, whether you are drawn to something secular like MBSR or something oriented to a spiritual or religious practice like Vipassana, Zen, or Tibetan Buddhism, Sufism, Jewish or Christian mysticism, TM, or simply staring at a flame, are maps. But remember, the map is not the territory. Any structured approach offers a balance of guidance and freedom. The territory is the awareness as it arises uniquely in each of us. Aldous Huxley reminds us, "Don't mistake the pointing finger for the moon." As long as you end up freely experiencing your own territory, I don't think it matters which map you used to get there.

I hope I've offered varying views in an understandable way. My aim is to appreciate all the varied and wondrous points of view, without being defensive, and present them in ways that allow us all to understand each other.

In an old issue of  Heron Dance , Rod Mac Iver quoted the liner notes from the 1966 John Coltrane album Meditations, in which Coltrane is interviewed by Nat Hentoff (music critic from the old New York paper, The Village Voice). Coltrane's description of his music resonates with how I am experiencing my life these days,
Once you become aware of this force for unity in life you can't ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do .... my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal in meditating this through music, however, remains the same. That is to uplift people as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life.
   There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give those who listen to the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep cleaning the mirror.
Clean your mirror. See yourself clearly, knowing that what you see is not you, but a reflection of you. Don't take your reflection literally.  Allow your awareness to rest in the observer who sees what's reflected in the mirror, and express yourself from there.