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  • James Tam

A Beginner Meditator's Reflections

Homo sapiens are but one recent life-form on a mediocre planet in a universe comprising hundreds of billions more impressive ones. Genetically, we overlap banana by about 50%. Nevertheless, probably through some short-term evolutionary mishaps, modern humans manage to disregard these humbling facts with baffling self-confidence. Our contemporaries have no qualms about dismissing “reality” if it transcends their five dull senses. That’s partly why meditation — a human discovery which has been tested for a few thousand years — are commonly viewed with suspicion, even derision, by present-day urbanites. Fortunately, many “amazing” claims of meditation have been verified by inquisitive remnants of our species. Google for researches on the subject by any reputable institution (try Harvard, for example), and you might be surprised by the amount of investigations done in the past few decades.

Naturally, most meditation guides and insights are from accomplished masters. However, the experience of a beginner may prove comforting, if not necessarily helpful, to someone who’s curious about the basics such as what to do during meditation and how to deal with mental noises. I don’t have the answers, of course, but do have conjectures based on a few months of daily practice. I hope they are worth sharing.

Last Easter, I unwittingly registered for a Chan Qi (禅七)— I suppose it can be translated as Zen Seven in Californian? — meditation concentration camp organised by Yoga Mala out of curiosity, and discovered Accidental Meditation to be a most uncomfortable inactivity. Seven excruciating days passed slowly. But for reasons I cannot explain, I have since kept up the practice — daily! Perhaps some karmic forces had kicked in, or a miracle had used me as manifestation medium.

There are actually many ways to sit and do nothing. All the three pillars of Chinese spiritual training — Daoism, Confucianism, and imported Buddhism — use meditation as a key to enlightenment. Tantric and Tibetan traditions are more colourful. After a brief and superficial enquiry, I settled on the straight forward approach taught by the late Master Nan Huai Jin (LINK). There are suggestions galore on YouTube in many languages. If you’re interested, research. Taking action is the first step to learn stillness. The fundamental techniques are simple. The risk of misguidance is small if one experiments sensibly, and avoids promises of a tiring long life and monotonous sexual power.

It literally takes no more than ten minutes to learn to sit properly. It’ll then be up to the practitioner to discover in the years to come, eyes closed, no scratching. Questions from incredulous friends have helped me to verbalise some of my initial perceptions. What does one do during meditation? Basically nothing. I sit on a thin cushion, legs crossed or in half lotus (do lotus if your hips are more open). I try to maintain the natural curves in my spine. My chin is tugged in slightly, eyelids draped over eyeballs resting at the back of the sockets, hands folded gently over laps, a demi-smile on the face to keep the muscles relaxed. I find picturing a Buddha statue in my mind helps. Then I mentally “watch” my breath. In — out — in — out — in… Life goes on.

A popular follow-up question: “Isn’t it boring to watch your breath?”

“What?” I’d feign surprise, though I’m rarely surprised by any question nowadays. “It’s not boring to watch TV or read gossip magazines instead?” Let me switch to my Master Yoda tone, and explain how nearly corpses we all are. If I stop breathing for a few minutes, suspending only a dozen breaths or two, die I will. Into a corpse my body will turn. The boundary between life and death is thin and fragile, but seldom noticed. Through breathing, I draw upon some mysterious life force to keep the body alive. Watching it happen breath by breath is fascinating. How can that be boring? “Mysterious life force? It’s called oxygen!” some might smirk. Now, he’s forgotten that air is mostly nitrogen, but never-mind. I’ll take that as a hint that this person not ready for more. Best to switch topic, or return to my breath.

Breath by breath, a few times a minute, I stay alive. Yet most of the time, I’m unaware. Breathing is habitual, involuntary, taken for granted. In meditation, I tune in to this entrancing human experience. OMG I’m breathing! Life is magic! It’s also vulnerable. Pause. Treasure the things which keep it going. Breath.

Another common question: “When I meditate, lots of silly thoughts go through my head. How do I stop them?”

You can’t. Mental noises are not only normal, but also inevitable unless one has attained some kind of Buddha-hood, or died (which may not be as quiet as some groundlessly assume). Therefore, forget about trying to eliminate trespassing thoughts with fifteen minutes of meditation. The important thing is to practice detachment. Let the thoughts — “positive” or “negative” — come and go. Also, unless you’re Catholic, don’t feel guilty about negative, even evil thoughts. They have nothing to do with you unless you let them take over. Thousands of thought fragments, mostly latent and irrelevant, go through our heads at unimaginable speed 24/7. In meditation, you see them more clearly, like dirts settling out in a glass of quiescent sewage.

The following illustration of trespassing thoughts may seem absurd, but are very real and typical. Random thoughts are sillier than you think. But some are capable of hijacking your life, so watch them!

“What should I eat tonight?”

Do you have to decide now? Let it go. Breath in.

Where do mosquitos hide during the long winter?

Uh, interesting but irrelevant. Let it go. Breath out.

“I wonder how my son’s doing. Is he getting along with his girlfriend?”

So what’re you going to do about it? Bye. Breath.

“I wonder if Hillary Clinton is constipated…”

Well, let this one pass okay? Breath. Uh, maybe hold it for a sec.

“That jerk from the office said something really snarky last week. I didn’t notice it then but now that I suddenly do, I’m pissed off. Maybe I’ll…”

You weren’t even pissed off then. But now you are unhappy all of a sudden, filled with suspicion and anger. Hey, congratulations for having created a new enemy out of thin air. God knows what disaster this might eventually lead to. Let it go. Breath.

Wandering thoughts are like the myriad of bacteria which swarm us. When we are healthy, they come and go. Some stay, even serve us. But when we’re down, they might take over and cause trouble. Similarly, drifting noises in our head just come and go if we are aware and detached. If you let them stick, one might grow like cancer. Our lives are shaped by external events and random ideas, most of them trivial. Letting them take control will lead to more suffering and miseries. Now you know why Buddha didn’t like them.

What about “positive” thoughts? Well, even the most noble intention can carry disastrous consequences. Plus few things can’t wait another thirty minutes. Why bother with them while you’re busy doing nothing this very precious moment, breathing in, breathing out, recharging life?

It’s unrealistic to expect enlightenment through periodic meditation. But if it helps to calm the nerves, reduce blood pressure, or restore common sense, then it’d be time worth spending with yourself.

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