Meditation and Mental Training

One of the ongoing requirements for ADF’s Dedicant Path is a 5-month practice of meditation or mental training techniques, involving at least one session a week (though of course, more is preferable). I have been an on-and-off meditator since before my Pagan conversion and have tried everything from guided meditation to zazen with a local Zen Buddhist group to using a secondhand New Age book to pray to my guardian angels. (It’s been an interesting 6-7 years since leaving Christianity.) My regular practice, which never did extend past the ephemeral two-week mark, would occasionally provide me with insights and understanding, but more often left me frustrated, bored, and with a backache.

Perhaps the very first lesson I learned and relearned when pursuing meditation is that the concept of the “monkey mind” is very real, very present, and very persistent. The monkey mind is that aspect of our conscious thought that seeks to know everything. It is a constant chatter of questioning, organization, and judgment. Think of a monkey with a pickle jar. He wants a pickle so he reaches in and grabs it, then tries to pull it out horizontally so it’s too wide to fit through the head of the jar. If the monkey would just let go of the pickle, he wouldn’t be trapped and would be free to go about his day. The mind is like this too – just replace “pickle” with any thought, emotion, or sensation that drives the mind to fixation.

I haven’t often taken time to navel-gaze because I don’t like confronting my own monkey mind. With the constant distractions of life – what should I eat, when should I clean my room, what’s the newest content on reddit, what about those job applications, did I take all my pills today – it’s easy to look over the state of my own mind. Unfortunately, my college days learned me well. When I became stressed and overworked, I never had the time for keeping my room or the kitchen neat, and so everything dissolved into a messy pit. When I did finally have time to clean, I didn’t want to waste that free time with cleaning, did I? Of course not. So dishes and dirty laundry piled up and my living space became more and more crowded and more and more inhospitable.

I hope the analogy is clear with my mental living space as well. Without doing the sometimes boring or difficult work of regular maintenance, my thoughts become muddied and anxious and cycle through the same old songs and dances. I keep relearning the same lesson about the power of the monkey mind because I haven’t let myself progress to the next step (whatever that is). My monkey mind frightens me off with its boredom, frustration, depression, anxiety, and other mental storms that sweep through the landscape with just as much destruction as any derecho. In meditation, especially the zazen style I prefer, there are no distractions which keep me from experiencing this psychic turbulence. If this is the soundtrack of my life, no wonder things so often seem discordant and out of tune.

This past week I’ve started working on the DP’s meditation requirements with the aim of daily practice and diligent upkeep of a Meditation Log. I meditate in the mornings after reading from Caitlín Matthews Celtic Devotionalwhich I highly recommend as spiritual and inspirational and all around awesome. I light a candle and incense, anoint myself with water from Brighid’s urn, and read the morning devotion. (By the way, my meditational practice seems to have accidentally dedicated itself to Brighid – but that’s content for another post.) This only takes a few minutes, but I’ve found it helps prime my mind for turning inward in meditation. My practice so far has been counting 100 breaths and nothing else. Counting breaths is simple and objective. Other thoughts and emotions arise certainly, but they should never take center stage or distract my enough to lose my place.

Of course this is all easier said than done. I am repeatedly struck with the sheer insistency my thoughts have of being noticed and labeled important, especially the negative ones. (I wouldn’t have half as much trouble with meditation if I kept getting sidetracked with positive thinking!) However, I’m finding that each morning I return to practice it becomes easier to accept the ravings of my monkey mind as I learn how to tune it out. I also don’t have the same mental experiences from day to day. And yes, even in the course of a week I think I have stumbled upon some progress, where I finally get to a point where my mind seems calmer and I’m not ready to fall asleep.

For those of you who meditate, which techniques do you prefer? What lessons has meditation taught you? What tips and tricks do you have for sticking with regular practice?

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5 Comments

  1. Formal meditation instruction really gave me a foundation to build on. After a couple of months of meditating daily, plus the class sessions, I had the practice and the tools I needed to keep up the habit. But when I went through a major job change, I discovered that having a dedicated time and place to do meditation was just as important. When that was gone, so was my practice.

    I was unable to restart my practice until I found another time where meditation really fit into my day. Even going back to the same place and taking another course of the same length didn’t work till I had that time and a place set up. I’ve been back at it for a couple of months now and it gets easier and easier to maintain the habit as time goes on.

    • Thank you so much for reading and replying, Black Rose! I’ve noticed that myself. There’s so much /stuff/ flowing through my brain, both good and bad, that if I don’t deal with it on a regular basis, then my lengthy rituals are interrupted because my brain hasn’t been disciplined into sitting still and paying attention when it needs to.

      ADF is lenient with it’s meditation/mental training discipline – it can be anything from regular meditation (of any type), prayer, or even an activity that leads to a meditative state. What do you yourself like to do?

      • Well said! I didn’t realize the stuff factor till I started meditating. And so much flows from dealing with that.

        I set a timer, so I don’t have to think about time. I always sit my full time regardless, whatever I’ve decided for that session. I start with the seven gestures meditation posture I was taught, and once I’m quiet, I do whatever seems right. Lately that’s been concentrating on my breath, and how it connects everything, how I have to take it in, and give it back, how it doesn’t belong to me, how nothing belongs to me, how I’m part of everything, how I breathe in what the trees breathe out, and when I breathe out, the trees breathe in, etc. etc. And then I drift forward in time to stuff I will be doing, and reel myself back to my breath, cuz, well, that’s what ya do, *g*, and then backward to something that happened, and reel myself back to the feel of my legs on the ground, cuz I’m being in the present, right? Right. The present. All I have to do is be here, because this is my time to just not have to do anything–and so on.

        All kidding aside, I find that listening to the world around me and letting it be is a good practice, particularly when the cars and people outside are driving me crazy. I don’t try to tune anything out because it always comes back. Rather I let the thought pass through and out and do something that uses up my mental bandwidth and brings me back to the present. Counting 21 breaths is one way–by the time I get to the end of that I can often just be with my breath without anything else for a while. And sometimes I feel my grove and drop my root and let it wind itself in with the rest of the trees’ roots. Listening to the hum that’s part of everything is also good–you have to get really quiet to hear that, even though it’s always there–and it’s easy to lose it–but you can always go back because it’s always there. Practices are like potato chips, there are a million out there, and you just find the flavors that work for you–now. Later will be different, it always is.

        I really ought to play with this and post it, not clog yer space up any farther. And credit it back to you and this post when I’m done, because, well, you inspired it.

        Thank you, you gave me a lot to think about, and I am really enjoying your blog. I’m fairly new to Druidry and hearing what other people do, or think, helps a lot.

      • Timer meditations can be great. I used an online buddhist timer that used soft gong sounds to take you in and out of meditation, so you weren’t abruptly woken up by your cell phone going off. 🙂 I really enjoy counting breaths because it’s simple and my brain can handle that. Also, strangely, while I don’t meditate as well as I’d like, apparently I am fabulous at giving guided meditations? Go figure. That’s been my job with all my Pagan groups irl.

        It’s good to meet you, and thanks again for commenting! How did you manage to find my blog, by the way? Your writing style is really familiar, but I might just be crazy. 🙂

        Danny

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