mudras

Four tips for meditating in public

I love meditating in public places. I’ve meditated on park benches, and on trains and buses and airplanes. I’ve done walking meditation on country lanes and on busy city streets.

One benefit of meditating in public places is being able to squeeze a bit more meditation into your day. If you regard meditation as something you can only do in a special room, relatively free from audible distractions, then you’re limiting the amount of time that you can spend meditating. If you regard these other times I’ve mentioned as being fair game, then you have many more opportunities for practice.

There are just a few things I’d suggest you bear in mind if you’re going to meditate in public.

  1. If you have the expectation that you’re going to become very narrowly focused on internal sensations, like the breathing, as might happen in a quiet meditation room, then you’re probably going to be very frustrated. What we need to do is to practice a more open form of awareness where the sounds around us are part of the meditation practice. I’ll usually start by being aware of the space, and light, and sound around me. I accept the presence of whatever sounds are arising. It doesn’t matter if the sounds are ones you might conventionally think of as unpleasant, like the sounds of construction or of music that you don’t normally like — just accept that they’re present. Think of allowing them to pass, uninhibited, through the space of your mind. Sounds in fact cease to be distractions, and become what you are mindfully paying attention to. It may be that once you’ve acknowledged the sounds, you can become more narrowly focused, but it’s fine if you end up breathing while also being mindful of any sounds that are arising.
  2. You might be interrupted. Even if you’re sitting with your eyes closed it’s possible that someone might come up and talk to you. Again, if you have an expectation that meditation is a self-evident “do not disturb” activity, as it generally is when you’re meditating in a dedicated meditation room, then you might be jarred or even angered by someone coming up and talking to you. So you have to accept that people around you are not going to know what you’re doing, and are unlikely to regard it as being special, in the way they might if they saw you sitting on a zafu in front of a Buddhist altar. So accept any disturbances with as much grace as possible.
  3. You can do any form of meditation outdoors. I’ve mentioned that you can do walking meditation. You can do mindfulness of breathing, although as I’ve suggested it may not be as deeply focused as when you meditate in a quiet, still place. Lovingkindness practice is perfect; cultivating lovingkindness can feel much more grounded and less abstract when there are actual people around. You might find that you don’t do the usual stages (self, friend, neutral person, etc.) and go straight to the final stage of wishing all beings well.
  4. Finally, I’d suggest avoiding meditation postures where the hands are held in special “mudras” on the knees or, even worse, held out to the sides. If you want to give the impression that meditation is some weird hippy-trippy activity, then that’s a great way to do it. But it’s not a traditional posture for Buddhist meditation, where the hands most often rest in the lap, although you can rest them on the knees as well. Generally a regular seated posture (hands on the lap) is fine for meditating on a train, bus, or park. It works, and it’s unpretentious.

It’s worth considering that the Buddha probably did the majority of his meditating outdoors, in places that we might consider public. He probably didn’t meditate in city streets, except for when he was walking or begging mindfully, but he had a reputation of meditating much closer to towns than was considered normal in those days; most meditators would withdraw to very secluded places deep in the jungle or up in the mountains. And this makes me think that the Buddha meditating in that way, in those relatively accessible places, might have had the effect of “normalizing” the practice of meditation by making it visible. Perhaps we too can have the effect of normalizing meditation, making people curious about what it is that all those people sitting peacefully with closed eyes on the bus, or train, or plane, of park bench are doing. Perhaps meditating in public could be a bodhisattva activity, subtly transforming our culture.

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Planting ourselves in the universe

Here in this body are the sacred rivers: here are the sun and moon, as well as all the pilgrimage places. I have not encountered another temple as blissful as my own body.
—Tantric song

When I meet with people at retreats or in counseling sessions, some will tell me they feel numb, lost in thoughts, and disconnected from life. Others might tell me they are overwhelmed by feelings of fear, hurt, or anger. Whenever we are either possessed by our feelings or dissociated from them, we are in trance, cut off from our full presence and aliveness.

In Buddhist meditation training, awakening from trance begins with mindfulness of sensations. Sensations are our most immediate way of experiencing and relating to life. All our other reactions—to thoughts, to external situations, to people, to emotions—are actually in response to physical sensations. When we are angry at someone, our body is responding to a perceived threat. When we are attracted to someone, our body is signaling comfort or curiosity or desire. If we don’t recognize the ground level of sensation, we will continually be lost in the swirl of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that make up our daily trance.

One of the best instructions I’ve heard for meditation practice was given by Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa: “Do not do anything that takes you away from your body.” The body lives in the present. When you are aware of the body, you are connected with living presence—the one place where you can see reality, see what is actually happening. Awareness of the body is our gateway into the truth of what is.

This gateway to refuge was crucial to the Buddha’s own awakening. When Siddhartha Gautama took his seat at the base of the bodhi tree—the tree of awakening—he resolved to stay there until he found full freedom. He began his meditation by collecting his attention, quieting his mind, and “coming back” to a full and balanced presence. But then, as the story is told, the demon Mara appeared, accompanied by a massive army, and with many deadly weapons and magical forces at his disposal. Mara is a tempter—his name means “delusion” in Pali—and we can also see him as Gautama’s shadow self. Mara’s intent was to keep Gautama trapped in trance.

Throughout the night Mara hurled rocks and arrows, boiling mud and blistering sands to provoke Gautama to fight or flee, yet he met these attacks with a compassionate presence, and the missiles were all transformed into celestial flowers. Then Mara sent his daughters, “desire, pining, and lust,” surrounded by voluptuous attendants to seduce Gautama, yet Gautama’s mind remained undistracted and present. Dawn was fast approaching when Mara issued his final challenge—doubt. What proof, Mara asked, did Gautama have of his compassion? How could he be sure his heart was awakened? Mara was targeting the core reactivity that hooks and sustains the sense of small self—the perception of our own unworthiness.

Gautama did not try to use a meditative technique to prove himself. Rather, he touched the earth and asked it to bear witness to his compassion, to the truth of what he was. In response, the earth responded with a shattering roar, “I bear you witness!” Terrified, Mara and his forces dispersed in all directions.

In that instant of acknowledging his belonging to the earth, Gautama became the Buddha—the awakened one—and was liberated. By claiming this living wholeness, he dissolved the final vestiges of the trance of separation.

For us, the story of the Buddha’s liberation offers a radical and wonderful invitation. Like the Buddha, our own healing and awakening unfolds in any moment in which we take refuge in our aliveness—connecting with our flesh and blood, with our breath, with the air itself, with the elements that compose us, and with the earth that is our home. Whenever we bring our presence to the living world of sensation, we too are touching the ground.

In the early part of the last century, D. H. Lawrence found himself in a society devastated by war, a landscape despoiled by industrialism, and a culture suffering from a radical disconnect between mind and body. Written in 1928, his words have lost none of their urgency:

It is a question, practically of relationship. We must get back into relation, vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe. … For the truth is, we are perishing for lack of fulfillment of our greater needs, we are cut off from the great sources of our inward nourishment and renewal, sources which flow eternally in the universe. Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.

When we disconnect from the body, we are pulling away from the energetic expression of our being that connects us with all of life. By imagining a great tree uprooted from the earth, we can sense the unnaturalness, violence, and suffering of this severed belonging. The experience of being uprooted is a kind of dying.

Some people tell me about the despair of not really living, of skimming the surface. Others have the perpetual sense of a threat lurking around the corner. And many speak of being weighed down by a deep tiredness. It takes energy to continually run away from pain and tension, to pull away from the life of the present moment. Roots in the air, we lose access to the aliveness and love and beauty that nourish our deepest being. No false refuge can compensate for that loss.

Yet, like the Buddha touching the ground, we can reclaim our life and spirit by planting ourselves again in the present. This begins by connecting with the truth of what’s happening in our body. Then, when we’re finally in direct contact with the felt sense of that aliveness in our own being, we can fully experience this mysterious field of aliveness we call home.

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War and Peace at the Metropolitan

A fundamental precept of Buddhism is the ability to reach Enlightenment – an awakened state of spiritual alertness – in a single lifetime. Avenues to this higher state of being include the chanting of mantras and the performance of mudras – ritual hand gestures.

Another path to Enlightenment, one often used in conjunction with mantra-singing and mudras, is meditation upon particular religious diagrams known as mandalas. These extremely complex rituals are usually taught and performed within the presence of a highly trained master. A select few of these original mandalas are now on display at a The Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibit entitled “Japanese Mandalas: Emanations and Avatars.”

At the very center of these often tremendously colorful mandalas rests the personification of all Truth: Buddha Dainichi Nyorai. All around the Buddha rests derivations of his being, most of whom are seated in the meditative position. These highly detailed painted scrolls come in gold, red, green and blue and can take the form of several feet in height and length, some even dating back to the twelfth century C.E.

Also on display at this exiting exhibit is the fascinating Scroll of Mudras, an eleventh century guide to meditative hand gestures formations (mudras) and several figurines and statues of Buddha and other deities that are over one thousand years old. This exhibit abounds with colorful scrolls and detailed paintings, and offers a prime example of how one of the world’s oldest religions contemplated the divine.

Also, Peaceful Conquerors: Jain Manuscript Painting, a similar exhibit is currently being featured. Jainism, a famously pacifistic manifestation of Buddhism, considered manuscript painting a religious endeavor, but not because its meditative enhancements. Thanks to these medieval traditionalists, details of myths and folklore such as celestial scenes of birth and love are portrayed on these delicate manuscripts – some of which were complicatedly painted on textile.

Although, like the one before it, the primary focus of this exhibit is the kaleidoscope-like manuscripts, it also features small decorative figurines of Buddha. The most captivating one is a seventh century copper alloy meditating atop a throne supported by lions. Bearing the markings of an Enlightened Being, he sits in yogic position aloft his throne with an enviously tranquil countenance. This exhibit is another wonderful example of the artistic and contemplative energy to be found in Far-Eastern religions.

Yet, lest one think that all Far-Eastern culture resembles a serenely peaceful monolith, the Metropolitan has provided the viewer with a remarkably contrasting exhibition entitled Art of the Samurai: Japanese Arms and Armor. Calling it “the first comprehensive exhibition devoted to the arts of the samurai,” the exhibit combines the finest variety of Japanese weaponry, including swords, archery equipment and firearms. The items on display date from ca. 1156 until 1868 – the year of the abolition of samurai culture.

This exhibit includes the original full armor of the infamous sixteenth-century fighter Honda Tadakatsu, as well as an amazingly precise facsimile made for a young member of his family. The most interesting element of this exhibit is the elaborately decorated warrior helmets. Reaching over a foot and a half in height, this ornate headgear appears to be more suited for a fashion show than a battle.

This trio of exhibits is an exceptional opportunity to experience a kernel of the vast treasures that Oriental culture has to offer. Although very different in nature, the exhibits allow for a more refined perception of Oriental traditions and non-Western ways of life that date back thousands of years.

The Commentator

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