Beginning Meditation Class
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Beginning Meditation Class
Beginning Meditation Class

"I think, therefore I am." Rene Descartes's famous quote points out the important place that western civilization gives to the process of thinking. Generally we consider it our highest function, our intellect, our uniquely human ability that has allowed us to progress and build our civilizations.

In Buddhism, there is a different take on thinking. One of the things beginning meditators are often amazed to discover is the nature of their thought process. It isn't something we pay much attention to in our daily life. But in meditation we begin to notice that the mind is running wild, that our thoughts are like a monkey swinging from one branch to another. For example, I might have a thought process like this:

I remember my Aunt Shirley from New York. She was so great, she took me to the Statue of Liberty when I was 4. One time, I saw these amazing photos of the Statue of Liberty in France, before it came to America, before it was assembled, including a huge foot. I kind of like my own feet, they aren't so bad. People say I have nice feet. But I really wish I had nicer arms. More muscular. Got to go to the club more! That club is so expensive! I need to save this year so I can get a new car. Maybe a hybrid. So important that we save energy.

So the little monkey mind went from Aunt Shirley to the Statue of Liberty, to feet, to arms, to the club, to money to saving energy. Seven swings from seven branches. One reason the Internet is so successful is that hyperlinks were invented by a psychologist who understood how our minds work. We hyperlink from one subject to another by our very nature.

Our thoughts often go off into stories, and we get emotionally hooked into the stories, the dramas of our lives. Sometimes, if we look closely at the stories we are telling ourselves, we can see that they are not even true. Sometimes the same thought pattern may come back again and again, indicating that perhaps a strong emotional component lies beneath.

When we meditate we begin to notice that much of what we are thinking about is not very important. We remember the past, we imagine the future, we plan dinner, we plan dinner over and over, we worry about things. One approach to take in meditation is that just for this short period of time while I am sitting, there is really nothing so important that I have to think about it. Visiting the past and and future do not contribute to our ability to stay in the present.

Imagine someone walking along beside you day after day, night after night, who never stops talking to you. Imagine this person is saying to you their entire stream of consciousness, day after day. I don't think I would be able to put up wiht this person for long. I would very much want them to just be quiet. Perhaps you have come to meditation because you would like to quiet your own mind and encourage your own stream of consciousness to just relax and take it easy for a while.

Many times a story will have enough power to make us forget what we are trying to do in our meditation practice, which, for example, might be following the breath. A little while later, we "wake up," and realize that we have unconsciously left the practice and gone off on a train of thought. There may be an impulse to judge ourselves at this moment, but it is really a moment of awakening, a moment for which we can congratulate ourselves as we make the choice to return to the breath. And it is a choice. Sometimes the stories and thought patterns are so compelling that we don't really feel like coming back to our practice, to the breath. We would rather luxuriate in our fantasy or think about the wonderful upcoming events that we are so happy about, or stoke the fires of a vendetta. So realize that we do have a choice.

The mind will think anything; it is absolutely shameless. The mind will consider the most outrageous and unsettling activites and situations. This doesn't mean that you are capable of acting out what goes in your mind. Sometimes it can be important not to take our thoughts too seriously. Of course, if you are having recurrent thoughts that are disturbing, if thoughts become obsessive, it is wise to speak with a therapist or guidance counselor and get some help with this. But in the course of every day life, we all imagine many things we would never actually do.

Throughout the meditation practice it is important to maintain a state of kindness to oneself, acceptance without judgement, without censure. Even if you sleep through the meditation, as sometimes will happen, remember that you sat down on the cushion or chair with the intention to meditate. You undertook a challenging activity with your own very best interest at heart, looking for ways to develop yourself and to discover your true human potential for being present and for being kind. You did the best you could for that session. Harsh judgements are not appropriate.

In Buddhism, the thoughts are considered the sixth sense. Impressions arrive through all the sense doors from outside. Visual impressions fall on our eyes, auditory impressions on our ears, impressions of touch on our skin, etc. Similarly it may be that thoughts just arise from who knows where and fall into our mind just like sounds fall on our ear drums.

The mind is a bubble machine, pumping out an endless train of thoughts that may have little to do with our true nature. This idea is a far cry from the western belief that we are our thinking. As we watch our thinking, we realize it is not who we are.


Proceed to Lesson Four Guided Meditation (35 minutes)

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