Talking to People About Meditation

In describing Vipassana meditation to a number of people this weekend I was met with a common theme.  Most of them said they thought meditation would be boring, and that’s why they weren’t interested in doing it. But when asked about what they thought the benefits would be, they said things like “bliss”, “relaxation”, and “supreme enlightenment!”. While that may be true of some practices, the Vipassana approach taught by S.N. Goenka delivers not just relaxation or bliss, but something much more powerful: simple “happiness” through developing one’s ability to concentrate the mind. 

Sometimes the response to this is “But I’m already happy.” (ergo, I don’t need to learn to meditate). There are of course varying degrees of happiness. Most people have something gnawing at them, even in the most serene environments. That subtle feeling of discontentment that something could be just slightly better, and so they move to change things so it can be, and then again and again until the objective is no longer to be at peace with the place and moment, but to make things better. This discontentment, it is often said by scholars in Buddhism, is what the Buddha really meant when he refers to ‘suffering’. Sure suffering could be the result of a larger physical or emotional problem, but it can also be the result of your tea being not quite hot enough, if the mind allows you that kind of focus. Maintaining charge of one’s mind to not allow unhappiness to enter into the sphere of their mental environment results in pure happiness, by definition. Easier said than done, so that is why we practice meditation.

One person asked me if meditation was like going on a hike where you’d think about things as they came to you and observe the world outside with awareness, as well as the pain growing in your feet and different parts of your body as time passes. After some consideration I answered no, that I didn’t think meditation was like going on a hike because the objectives were different.  People can go on hikes for many different reasons and, like meditation, there are physical and psychological benefits to both.  However meditation in the style I practice has the main objective of mental purification, not being aware of your environment, although that skill may improve through the practice of meditation too. By combing through the physical sensations (pleasant and unpleasant) and learning to accept them in a safe environment of focus, we eventually grow to also accept things pleasant and unpleasant outside the confines our bodies with acceptance. This is how the practice works. It was clear that the person asking the question was not happy that their analogy of hiking and meditation was not embraced.  She really wanted to be told that she was okay without meditation in her life because she liked and benefited from hiking, I suppose.

Likewise some who practice meditation of a different style sometimes grow defensive when I point out the differences between our approaches and the core objectives of Vipassana: To come to terms with one’s personal reality as a path to real happiness. There are no external devices of conscious imaginary visualization to provide temporary emotional happiness in Vipassana. In Vipassana, these things actually work against the objective of observing and accepting reality. It is hard work, but most people want their results to be pleasant and immediate while meditating instead of training to fortify the mind against unhappiness, like one might train the body through yoga or lifting weights against physical inflexibility and weakness.

It’s a tentative balance when talking with others about the practice. No one wants to think their current lifestyle and pursuits are inadequate. The acid test is, can you maintain the balance of your mind and level of happiness during good times and bad with this practice? The truth is paradoxical and is therefore somewhat had to convey in conversation to those who don’t already get it: Only by accepting the pains and inadequacies in our lives and embracing them are we free to be truly happy.

Nature Photography and Meditation

I recently had the opportunity to visit the island of San Juan off Washington state with friends to camp, kayak, and shoot wildlife photography.  I’ve been doing photography in various capacities since I was 8 years old, but never got very involved with photographing wildlife for a number of reasons.  First, the gear and telephoto lenses required to get close enough are extremely expensive.  Second, I’ve never had the interest in pursuing the knowledge required to know where to go to “stalk” subjects properly.  Besides, more interesting subjects require expensive travel.  On San Juan island the Orca whales travel and feed up and down the west coast of the island daily this time of year, so the opportunities to photograph them are plentiful.  I rented what I thought was an adequate telephoto zoom lens, and when chores around the campsite were done went off to the cliffs and shoreline to photograph whales.

Whale Tail

The Elusive Orca Whale

The first thing I learned about wildlife photography is you can never be close enough to your subject.  You can only zoom in so far with photoshop without all your work looking like a blurry sighting of bigfoot in the wilderness.  The second thing I learned is the minimum shutter speed should be approximately the same fraction of a second as your focal length.  If you’re shooting a 400mm lens, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/400th of a second to avoid blurring due to the great magnification.  The third thing to know about wildlife photography is if something interesting happens and the subject is not in your viewfinder at the time it happens, the opportunity is almost certainly lost forever and it is better to observe the moment, rather than scramble to try to get a bead on it with your camera after the fact.  This can be extremely disappointing, especially when you’ve spent a good part of a day waiting for a good shot.

San Juan Eagle

You won’t catch this bird wandering attention. Why? Her quality of life depends on it…and so does yours as a meditator.

Like meditation, I found wildlife photography requires intense awareness, concentration, and patience.  If attention wanders or gets scattered, you can miss out on the very thing you set out to accomplish.  Meandering thoughts and attention distract from the objective of being present and aware.  In nature photography, we need to keep one eye on the big picture and the other fixed to the viewfinder.  Similarly, in Vipassana, one must remain aware of what is going on in the big picture of one’s mental state while remaining diligent about scanning the body for sensation.  Am I remaining focused, or are ancillary thought patterns interfering with the goal of staying with the sensations of the moment?

San Juan Seal at Sunset

The 4 Natural Elements

I was remiss in meditation practice the last few days due to food poisoning.  I chickened out of experiencing the intimate reality of what my body was going through.  I never meditate when I’m on pain medication or have been drinking.  Seems antithetical to sharpening one’s mind when under the influence.  Meditating while under the influence of salmonella seemed equally wrong.

Noticing tonight how food eaten affects meditation.  Some BBQ pork ribs for dinner made me feel very heavy and tight in the abdomen, making it difficult to sit straight without a little aching pain in the back.  Goenkaji says heavy or greasy food brings about these qualities of the earth element when meditating.  Similarly fire could be equated to spicy food or anger.  Air with fear or perhaps ease of breath or farting.  These things mostly seem distracting from the practice however.  Why would nature want to interfere with my efforts to pursue Dhamma?  Perhaps it’s just my over-indulging in these qualities of nature beyond what I’m capable of taking on and remaining balanced that causes problems.  Water is usually a symbol for ease and flow, and perhaps therefore influences a smooth and easy meditation.  Certainly having to urinate or feeling overly emotional during meditation would be a distraction.  Accepting the natural distractions of the mind by outside influences on nature and remaining focused is part of the challenge and what leads to improvement on the path.

It also occurred to me how much the luminogram to print artwork I do is not just representational of the elements, it is comprised of them (as are all of us, and all the universe).  Chemicals and elements such as silver and bromide are mined from earth. They are mixed with water to allow them to be diluted and flow easier.  Light from fire in my lamp burns the silver halide turning it dark, and air produces bubbles and pressure to deliver the chemicals  to the film in various ways.  Some of my early luminogram work can be seen by clicking here!  I’m looking forward to doing a show in August in Boulder.  Good excuse to work on new images that have been waiting patiently for my attention.