Saturday, September 20, 2014

First time group meditation

So I joined the gym of my local college campus. Pasted on the entrance one day I happened to catch a schedule for a previously unknown to me meditation hall annex to the sports center. I decided to check it out.

source: http://www.public-domain-photos.com/; White and Pink Flowers taken by Magnus RosendahlI've been meditating for myself over the previous year. Frankly I would have never started had not physical troubles pushed me to it. Meditation as alternative medicine was frequently mentioned in the books I consulted and decided to give it a try. If nothing else as a way to take over my own recovery. Well, I had been meditating with more or less success in a standing posture, but felt I could do even better with some guidance. My first impetus was posture itself. Though not prohibited by any means, standing straight is not mainstream. Maybe some regular time tested sitting might help.

The first couple visits to the meditation hall were unsuccessful as it was they were sessions already going on (yoga I think) and didn't want to distract the girls there. On the third go, I chanced on a general meditation workshop. Being a slow day, there was only the instructor and a student. As I entered the teacher was explaining the concept of koans to the student. The instructor invited me to join, but startled at the unexpected welcomeness, I decided to let them be and left. Undaunted, I tried yet once more, and finally caught the instructor by himself the following week.

He was sitting there by himself already on meditation with three more unoccupied cushions at his sides. He stopped and kindly asked me to come in. He turned up to be a soft spoken Westerner with 35 years of meditation experience.I explained that I was there to try the cushions out. He said that by all means and promptly proceeded to induct me. He asked me if I already meditated and which meditation school I practiced (makeshift zen). He gave me a crash course anyway: how, to sit,  where to feel the breathing (2 inches below the navel), keep the eyes open, focus on no point, think on nothing (he did say that) and to just return the awareness to it.

With that he told me we would go for 20 minutes. He laughed when I tried to negotiate it down to ten, my then maximum, set some meditation timer app and then we were at it. Before long two more persons came into the hall, one sitting on the line of cushions and the other behind us three.

Well, those twenty minutes were not so bad as I expected. Actually, far from feeling any pressure from the others I felt motivated by them. The practice felt more flowy, easier and at times, deeper. Nothing dramatic, but the momentum did build upon itself.The time for its part flew, but unlike my own practice I wondered from time to time how much we had left, not out of anxiety, but of curiosity. Despite trying to get into a proper posture (Burmese style) at the onset, I still felt my right knee was off the floor. A bit uncomfortable on the whole, but not painful.

So when the digital bowl rang from the phone, the instructor bowed forward, took a silent pause and took a look 'round. One of the latecomers I recognized as the koan guy from before; the other a female student. When I tried to stand up I found that my right leg had numbed over; the koan guy seeing that, good naturedly chuckled and said that it happens but over time it gets better. The girl, I saw, had pulled a meditation bench from somewhere and on the spot I decided to try that next.

The instructor proposed that we now switch to a five minute walking meditation. Same thing, just fist over the thumb on the right, left hand. We went single file behind him round the hall, although I had to stand there for the first few while sensation came back to my leg. On the whole I liked this change, although it was hard to focus on my breathing or on anything for that matter. Just the circuit again and again. Probably that's the point if there's a point at all. Maybe that's how the whirling dervishes, on another scale, get their kicks (Update: from the 3 Pillars of Zen I learn this is called kinhin and its for its own sake, to allow variety and to allow longer sitting periods) .

After another bowl ring, the instructor invited us to another 20 minute sit to close the allotted time. I politely begged off, having had my fill for the moment, but promised to come back next week.

And so I did on the weeks following. Same dynamics: sit around 20 to 25 minutes, walk five, sit another 20. Different persons came and went, but we averaged three or four consistently. The benefits I had noticed on my first try were still there with differing intensity. I tried the bench and found it even better and eventually bought one for myself on an auction site. The teacher gave a few pointers here and there ("your posture is good, but you must let yourself drop"). My own solitary practice has strengthened. If you ever have the chance to try to group meditate with a handful of people, I'd encourage you to to not let the opportunity pass.

More next time

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Meditation AND Mindfulness for Dummies review

Starting this week a small series on meditation

In order to solve some issues  I have, I decided to take up meditation. I had already read and enjoyed Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, but felt I needed more step by step instruction. To sift through the mounds of books on the subject, I established that the book I'd read had to:

  • Be Western oriented. I knew that the techniques had already been distilled for Western consumption. I did not want to learn any Eastern philosophy to practice, if I could help it. Thus, it also had to have:
  • No oblique language. Hand me clear, precise concepts and instructions. No mumbo jumbo. Straight forward lingo for me. Thank you very much.
  • Cover the basics and offer alternative approaches for me to try or adapt.
  • Address mindfulness. Felt that I needed this, so it had to be in there too.

source: public-domain-photos.com; taken by Jon SullivanLooking around I almost settled for Mindfulness: an 8 week plan… by Williams et al. and the Mindfulness Solution by Siegel.  While considering these and others, Meditation for Dummies by Bodian made its way into the list. Whittling down the choices by comparing the contents, Bodian's finally beat all the other contenders despite being the most expensive of my choices. It delivered.

It is chockful of goodies and with it one is unlikely to need anything else for many many months. Starts with general aspects such as the different meditation traditions, the benefits of and research on meditation and so on. Meditation instruction doesn't start until chapter 6 but the author encourages the reader to jump around if she feels like it. Practical aspects, such as what to where and where to sit, are explored and troubleshooting section for more challenging problems. Chapter 14 is a godsend as it recaps the material and offers suggestions to build one's own practice.  In the Dummies tradition, it has a Further Steps section towards the end for even further exploration.

The book's meditation style leans towards Buddhism, but offers plenty of meditation alternatives from different traditions for one to try if one feels like it. Some Jewish and Christian meditation is in there as well.  An added bonus is that the author has a psychotherapy day job, sothats a bonus as I feel he writes with experience.

When I placed Meditation In the shopping cart, I was also recommended to also check out another Dummies book, Mindfulness for Dummies (2010 edition) by Alidina. Did so, and saw that it also covered my requirements and gave another look to about the same topics. Decided to  bite the bullet, get these two and draw from both. I was astounded  that it were Dummies books, two of them, who trounced the competition.

Mindfulness for also is is quite agnostic and doesn't try to get you adopt any spiritual beliefs. It even warns against joining cults and stuff (unless you want to). Both are good, but Bodian's has an edge over Alidina's. Now, there's nothing wrong with Alidina, only that it is more constrained in its scope. If Mindfulness is the only one you can get, that's fine as it's oriented to beginners as well and covers about the same material, but I kinda felt it as a second course. My original plan of reading them both concurrently didn't pan out as despite their similarity, in my experience they don't quite reinforce each other. Better stick with one at the time, and if possible, make that Meditation.

Both 4 stars
(Both print books include meditation Cds which I've skipped for now)

More next time

Is Kyubey Mephistopheles?


Am I cute, or what?
I find that the character Kyubey from the anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica, not as interesting or important as others , nor do I find him (I assume he's male) the most important aspect about the series (by far!), but I thought that a point should be made about him.

What follows contains spoilers up to episode five, which is a respite from the events of previous episodes and because this is as far as I have watched. Spoiler avoidance is especially important in this series.