A few years ago, I was talking with Tiara, my Buddhist friend, about an upcoming walking trip. I told her I was good on the flat ground but climbing hills was tough.
Tiara offered a suggestion, she called it walking meditation. I should chose a point of focus a few meters ahead, concentrate ONLY on my steps and chant quietly to myself one, two, one, two in time with my steps and the movement of my poles. I should try to think of nothing else while I was walking up my personal Everest. She promised I would find it much easier to climb those hills if I practiced walking meditation.
I tried it and it worked. By concentrating on the repetitive chant, I walked more slowly, more resolutely and more powerfully. I forgot my sore feet, my tired legs, my thirst. I focused my thoughts on the mantra of walking and climbed steadily to the top of several hills, feeling strong and confident.
If this was walking meditation, I liked it. I should look into it more.
Over the subsequent years, I have engaged in a desultory flirtation with meditation and Buddhism. I read a bit, it didn’t help. Buddhism seemed complicated, ethereal and will-o’wispy. Talking to other friends who were Buddhists sometimes made it better for a brief moment, then it slipped back into the mists.
Meditation offered an opportunity that seemed helpful on other fronts – not just walking.
I think too much. I call it my mild case of ADHD. Meditation offered a respite from thinking too much.
I’m somewhat compulsive about planning. Meditation seemed to offer a solution; live in the present, be mindful of now. The past is gone, the future hasn’t arrived.
And, contrary to the logic and orderliness of most modern demands on me, my thinking seemed undisciplined. I have a short span of attention; I am constantly distracted by random unpredictable thoughts and ideas that sometimes make it hard to focus on normal activities – life is much more complicated than it needs to be.
Finally, if that is not enough, I seem to have grown more impulsive over the years; I act too quickly and then have to live with the consequences of my impulsive acts.
Meditation seemed to offer to slow things down, simplify them, keep me grounded. I was encouraged to try it.
In a series of random chats with Buddhist friends, I was given several metaphors to help me understand the purpose and challenge of meditation – the mind as a monkey, the mind as a puppy and the mind as a tiger.
The monkey mind is a powerful metaphor, deeply embedded in Buddhist teachings. The monkey mind – chattering, noisy, never sitting still, jumping everywhere – must be tamed. The metaphor is so clear, I get it.
Another metaphor to consider is the puppy – full of energy, curiosity, always exploring, constantly moving, sniffing, climbing, searching, easily distracted – calming the puppy is a happier, warmer definition of the challenge.
The third is slightly different, the tiger. The tiger of our mind is wild, untamed, constantly prowling, aggressively searching for food and protecting itself from other predators; all its senses alive, constantly on the prowl.
Last week I chose to act. I attended my first Buddhist sponsored weekend meditation retreat – Friday night, all day Saturday and Sunday. Silence was to be observed while we were meeting. The time would be spent in a combination of meditative sitting, talks by our leaders, and meditative walking outside the building.
On Friday night, I drove out to the Asian Center at UBC, wearing comfortable clothing as instructed. I had indicated that I was going to do chair meditation, I think my days of kneeling for hours have passed me by; to my surprise I wasn’t the only one, the room was filled with chairs.
We were a mixed lot, all age groups; no one seemed to fit my stereotype of the earnest Buddhist meditator.
The room was cool, dimly lit, with lots of space. There were two leaders to help us with our meditation practice and deliver a series of talks about their insights after years of practice.
Their vocabulary was profoundly different from that which had framed my life. There were no sports/competition metaphors, no winners/losers, no talk of challenges/victory/defeat, struggle/achievement, no targets or measures of progress. The empiricism, the rationality, the standard cartesian western lexicon were noticeably absent.
Their vocabulary was profoundly different; mild suggestions, gentle observations and helpful hints replaced plans and instructions. There were no goals, no achievements. The concepts were vague, ethereal generalities, tough to quantify and nail down. The logic lacked logic, I could nail down nothing. It all seemed so wispy, smoky – illusive and elusive; calm, serene, simple.
In the west there is no try, there is only do or don’t do. Here it is try, do your best.
We were encouraged to close our eyes and meditate – slow down our thinking, try to NOT think; tame the monkey mind, calm the puppy, control the tiger.
Over the weekend we had many sitting meditation sessions, most lasting less than an hour. We were also given opportunities to try walking meditations. Amongst these were several conversations, of the softest gentlest variety I have ever experienced. To say we had to intuit our instructions would be too bold and forthright – too strongly suggestive.
I won’t try to explain further, the paint is still drying on the words I’ve just written. Let’s say it is a work in progress. Clearly this is more complex and challenging than I thought. It requires discipline and rigour.
…there was something there, I’m not sure what, but it is worth pursuing. I found the monkey, the puppy and the tiger almost impossible to tame, calm and control. The more I tried, the more insistent they became. Not thinking is tough.
…with my eyes closed, there was no way to calibrate time and without calibration, time seemed to slip past. There were a few oases of calm even as I wrestled with the monkey, the puppy and the tiger.
…I’ve signed up for another weekend in November.
Here’s a postscript.
On many occasions in the past, I have been caught staring off into the middle distance. “What are you thinking?” she would ask.
“Nothing.” I would reply.
This answer seemed to provoke a skeptical response.
“You can’t be thinking about nothing,” she would say. “that’s impossible.”
I may have stumbled upon a community that not only believes that it is possible to think about nothing, they actually encourage it.
Maybe, when asked in the future, “what are you thinking?” and I say “nothing”, I will be able to say it with a sense of accomplishment.