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Base Camp:
Meditation Basics

In This Chapter

  • Posture and Stretches
  • Conscious breathing
  • Quiet mind
  • Walking meditation
  • Hindrances and how to overcome them
  • There are many paths up and down the mountain. Meditation's like the base camp. Meditation can also be like an oasis, where you can recharge your batteries while on your pilgrimage called life.

    When we're tranquil, our minds are like a clear lake. If I were to toss a small stone into such a lake, we'd see it fall all the way to the bottom. With such clarity, we could discover a lost pearl of great price, slipped down to the bottom of this lake. That lake's like our mind, whose muddy waters can become clear and whose ripples flatten out, all on their own. That pearl represents our mind's natural luminosity, solidity, and pricelessness.

    This chapter surveys these meditation fundamentals. Square One. Welcome to Base Camp!

    Here's Where It Sat:

    Archeologists in the Indus Valley have dug up small figurines of men in the posture of yogic meditation dating back at least five millennia. That's a long time to be sitting. Sure, the sculptor might've been commemorating a sit-down strike or something. We don't know for sure; they didn't come with descriptive booklets. But just looking at them you sense a reverence. It seems almost as if the very posture of sitting cross-legged in the lotus position can mean so much.

    In the full lotus, the classic meditation position, each leg's on the opposite thigh. In a half lotus, only one foot rests on the opposite thigh, the other rests on the floor or on the calf, and often with a pillow to support that knee. In a quarter lotus, the feet rest on the calves. And in the Burmese position, both feet are folded in front of your body, not crossed over each other.
    For illustrations, please visit Kwan Um School of Zen.

    In the accompanying picture (from Kwan Um School of Zen) you see the classic pose of the Buddha. Have you tried it? Seated, cross-legged, you aren't going anywhere. The alarm bells of fright-or-flight, hard-wired into our physiology, always on the lookout for dangers in the environment, get dimmed way down. Your hands aren't manipulating any tools. There's nothing to say, nothing to do but sit and breathe, in the here and in the now.

    With knees apart slightly, you can meditate while kneeling. You can sit on your heels or a small bench or your zafu on end. If you sit in a chair, don't rely on the back of your chair for support: Rely on yourself, and in good posture.

    Just smiling slightly while taking a few breaths can actually make you happier. (Go ahead and try it, right now!) Stopping and taking a few, slow, fully conscious breaths can calm and sharpen awareness. Peace can be as simple and bold as that.

    Ears over Shoulders:
    Basic Postures

    The basics of meditation have remained the same for millennia. Ideally, you sit on a cushion on the floor, but a chair works, too. I've heard of someone experiencing initial enlightenment while sitting in a high school auditorium chair.

    On the ground, your legs might take one of three positions: full lotus, half lotus, or Burmese. In full lotus, each foot is on the opposite calf or thigh. In half lotus, only one foot is on the opposite thigh or calf; the other rests on the ground (in which case it's often advisable to put a small, thin pillow underneath it, so both knees are equally level and balanced). Burmese-style, both knees are on the floor. Your contact with the ground should feel like a stable tripod, of knees and sit-space. Feel yourself sink down into this contact, like a mountain upon the earth. Your tailbone makes contact with the ground, and your anus tilts up, along with your hips.

    At a cafe, when I see people hunched over like Rodin's The Thinker over a sandwich, or a book, or their laptops, I wonder, "Are they getting enough oxygen to their brains, their hearts, their minds?" Bent over, it's hard to breathe fully and so writing, reading, or eating lacks full enrichment. Try it for yourself: Sit hunched over and notice your breathing ~ then notice the difference in your breathing when sitting straight.

    Your back needs to be straight so breathing and energy can flow freely. Imagine there's a small ring at the top of your head, where your hair meets your scalp, and a hook comes down from the sky, engages that ring, and gently lifts you up, as far as your waist. Everything above your waist stretches straight upwards. Your lower back naturally curves in and your upper back naturally curves out. Overall, your spine is erect and stretched. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, points out another way you can imagine this: Sit in a way that embodies dignity. He's noted that whenever he tells his students this, everybody knows that feeling and how to embody it. It's a good practice for throughout the day: remember "dignity," remember "sky hook."

    The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment. If you cannot be satisfied with the state of mind you have in zazen, it means your mind is still wandering about. Our body and mind should not be wobbling or wandering about. In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it. This is the conclusion of Buddhism."

    ~ Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

    Your shoulders are back so your chest can comfortably expand. Your ears are over shoulders. Your shoulders are over your hips. Your nose is aligned with your navel. Your eyes are horizontal with the ground, but you tuck your chin in, which lowers your head just a fraction. (You don't want to squish the back of your brain.) You might imagine your head supports the sky.

    Your hands can rest on your knees, palms down or up. (More on hands in a second.) Now, test your position. Sway front and back, then left and right. Get centered.

    Doing That Cool Hand Jive: Mudras

    As the motionless posture of our legs and feet sends a message to our brain (that we're not going anywhere), so too does the placement of our hands hold meaning. An etiquette book, for example, may tell you not to put your little finger out at a 45-degree angle when you hold your fork, so as not to appear "backstairs refined." Two important gestures (called mudras) are those of greeting and meditation.

    Hand gestures hold significance. The two-fingered V-sign is almost universal. Buddhism has a catalogue of gestures called mudras (Sanskrit for "sign, seal"). When the Buddha or a deity holds one hand up, palm out, that means protection, "don't fear." Fingers outstretched except the tip of thumb and index finger meeting in a circle is the mudra of teaching. By imitating certain gestures outwardly, it's thought we can cultivate the inner state associated with them.

    The two characters ga + sho mean "palms joined."
    (Illustration from Jodo Shu)

    Joining palms is a universal gesture of spirit. There's a famous etching by Albrecht Duürer of two disembodied hands praying in and of themselves. In the East, putting palms and fingers fully together is a gesture of greeting (namaskar/namastey, Hindu; anjali, Sanskrit; wai, Thai; gassho, Japanese). In India and Thailand, you put your hands together at your chest and raise them to your forehead, often followed by a bow, still in that position ~ eyes and joined hands going outward and down to a spot on the ground equidistant between the greeter and the greeted. It says, "The sacred within me salutes the sacred within you." And "Have a nice day."

    More than a salutation, then, it can be an expression of devotion or gratitude, as well as supplication. As the action joins venerator and venerated, it's also an expression of unity, and an appreciation of suchness (see Chapter 8, The Fine Print: Touching Deeper, for more on suchness). It's often used at the beginning and end of meditation. For example, you might to fellow sangha members, and then to your cushion, before being seated. You might also gassho to a statue of the Buddha. (Buddhists also use the word gassho as a salutation in a letter, instead of "Yours truly.")

    Cosmic meditation mudra. mahamudra (hokkaijoin, Japanese).

    When seated, you can place your palms on your knees. Or you might try the earth-touching mudra, seen in Chapter 1, Why Is This Man Smiling?: The Buddha. But the best is the standard pose, sometimes called the cosmic mudra. Put your the back of your right hand on top of your left palm. Adjust how close or far apart your hands are so your thumbs make contact ever so lightly, at about the height of your navel. From the front, the space between your hands resembles an egg (hold it without dropping it), and behind it is a point below your navel called dan tien in Chinese, hara in Japanese, considered your true center ~ physically in posture, and spiritually as central repository of life-force, also known as (a.k.a.) prana and chi. When you've got the gesture, give yourself two big hands!

    Facing Your Meditation

    There are about 300 muscles in your face alone. Letting them all relax takes a little time. As you do so, you might ask, "What do I do with my tongue?" Answer: Rest tongue on roof of mouth. Tip to inside upper lip.

    And why not smile!? Thich Nhat Hanh has coined the nifty phrase "mouth yoga" ~ lifting one corner of your mouth, slightly, like Mona Lisa or the Buddha. He remarks, "Why wait until you are completely transformed, completely awakened? You can start being a part-time Buddha right now!"

    To see or not to see!? I like to close my eyes to rest. Seeing is really a very intricate, complex process when you think about it. It uses more than half the space our brain allots for the five senses. Shutting my eyes frees me from all that information, frees me from domination by objects, and directs my sight, instead, inward. Do I need to be aware of the rectilinear borders partitioning space? Eyes closed, I feel rounder and more boundless. Pitfalls to eyes-closed are possibly hallucinating or falling asleep.

    Some zen teachers suggest keeping your eyes open, keeping this-worldly. (After I've checked in at Base Camp and feel calm, I usually do open my eyes for the duration of my meditation.) For that route, try focusing your gaze on a spot on the floor about a yard away. If you're in a group, the back of the person in front of you would do.

    What If I Froze Like This?:
    Warm-Up Stretches

    It can be hard enough just sitting for 45 minutes without composing a stunning speech to your lover or manager. But, as Oscar Wilde exclaimed, "Spare me physical pain!" That is, part of your job is to note the arising and passing of physical distractions as well as the mindwaves, without judgment, and to let them go. On a retreat, people often notice both physical and mental pain falling away at or after the third day. But, on the other hand, you're not inviting pain. So, as with any athletic physical culture, warm-ups are a sound investment in a healthy, happy practice.

    Check out The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga for information on such poses as the Bound Angle, the Butterfly, the Cat, the Cobbler, the Cobra, the Cradle, the Downward Dog, the Hero, the Locust, the Lunge, the Supported Bridge, and the Triangle, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tai Chi and Qi Gong for Tai Chi warm-up exercises, all of which make excellent stretches for meditation.

    Yoga instruction in such poses as the downward-facing dog and help keep the pain demons away from meditation sessions, and make you more feel human afterward.
    Illustration at left courtesy of YOGaaah!; at right, from Ask Yogi Marlon

    ~ return to top

    Why Not Breathe?
    You're Alive!

    As mentioned in the previous chapter, meditation can be one breath long ... an impromptu mini-meditation ... a pause that releases. One conscious breath. Breathing in, just being aware you're breathing in. Breathing out, just being aware you're breathing out.

    No matter the spiritual tradition, breath's an essential ingredient. What could be more impermanent and insubstantial, yet vital and universal? In the biblical creation story, human beings were fashioned out of red clay and infused with the divine breath of life. It's interesting that the word used in the New Testament for spirit literally means breath. Thus in John 20:22, "Receive thou the Holy Spirit," the original is literally, "Receive holy breath."

    From cradle to grave, we're breathing ~ but we're seldom aware of it. So why not check in for a moment? When you're ready, set this book aside, and just notice your breathing. Like a mental snapshot, a breath impression. Just pay some attention to how you're breathing. Don't judge. Don't try to change anything. Three or four breaths later, notice if you feel any more centered, grounded, for having checked in. That's all it takes. Try it.

    I don't know if Jesus taught his disciples conscious breathing, but it's an interesting notion. (Consider Acts 2:4, for example, "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit" ~ filled with holy breath; perhaps also filled with the awareness of the holiness of breath?) Christians who practice Buddhist conscious breathing sometimes call it "resting in the Spirit." Meditating on breath brought Siddhartha to Grand Enlightenment. And so he specifically addressed conscious breathing from the very start. His Sutra on Full Awareness of Breathing is one of his most essential teachings.

    The Sanskrit word for breath, prana, also means universal energy, life-force. The origin of the Chinese word for this, chi (pronounced chee, also spelled qi), is believed to be steam, vapor. The word spirit come from Latin, spiritus, spirare, meaning breath; to breathe. (Inspiration means breathing in.) The Old Testament Hebrew and Greek words for spirit, ruach and pneuma, mean breath but also wind (merging within and without).

    Breathing's universal and ever-present. Everybody breathes, and all the time. And it's integral to our state of being. Thus it's a perfect vehicle for practice.

    One-breath meditation can be a base upon which to expand. See what feels right. Add five minutes ... then try ten. It's kind of awesome to be aware of breath, and nothing else. Interesting, at least. You already have all you need for conscious breathing. So play with incorporating it as part of your practice.

    Some people slide right into it, while others need a little hand-holding. So a few pages follow with some techniques to help center or guide your awareness. Read through and see if just one might sound interesting. Trying them all right now might be overkill. They're all designed to focus awareness on breathing and set aside anything else. For example, you might loop a string of beads around your hand and move one bead down with your thumb each time you've breathed in. (Works for me!)

    Three more such mindful breathing techniques are as follows:

    You might think one any of these techniques or tools as bicycle training wheels to get you started. After a certain point, you might feel your breath slow, deepen, and calm, accompanied by an often pleasant feeling, like release. Still noticing how your breath flows, you can gently let go of your focusing technique, and just stay with your breath in the present, and nothing else.

    Having a Gut Feeling That the Nose Knows

    Two areas of your body can help center your mind on your breathing ~ and then help your breathing center your mind. You can focus awareness on either your nostrils or your navel.

    With your mouth closed, your breath comes and goes through your nostrils. Rediscover this for yourself. Sitting still for a moment, right now, be conscious of that fact. When you're ready, put this book aside. You might direct your attention to the very tips of your nostrils. Breathing in, feel how cool breath can feel at your nostrils ~ maybe even how fragrant. Breathing out, feel how warm the breath feels at your nostrils ~ warm and fuzzy, perhaps.

    That's meditation bedrock, for many; all that's needed. But your mind might naturally expand and want to explore. If so, you might direct your attention to your breath coming and going through your inner nostrils. And stay with that. When you can do that, and just that, for five minutes, congratulations! ~ you've established your meditation base camp.

    Consider conscious breathing your base ~ from which to set forth, and explore, and to which you can come home. It's that center or "centering" you might hear about in spiritual circles. Maintain it with regular practice. Build upon it if you like by adding five minutes, until you're up to 30 to 45 minutes a day.

    Alternatively, you can concentrate on your navel. Maybe you've heard the stereotype of Eastern meditations as being "navel-gazing." Actually, it's not the navel but the hara or dan tien that you focus on. It's about the size of a dime, three or four fingers down from the navel. If our nostrils are the doorway, then this might be thought of as the palace basement, the storehouse, the secret treasury.

    Focus on belly breathing may run counter to the way you've been brought up. I know I was taught to keep my abdomen hard, military-style. "Hold it in," the expression went, and, since body and mind are one, this applied to emotions as well; aren't they often called "gut feelings"? So it's not uncommon to see people trying to breathe deeply by expanding their chest rather than their bellies. When frightened, babies breathe in their chests, as if scared of contracting something overwhelming in their belly. Some people often carry this trait over into adulthood as a basic policy toward life. ("Uh-oh, this makes me breathe deeply: Houston, we have a problem.") Notice how far down your body moves with your own breath. Don't try to change or judge it. Just observe.

    Concentrating on your lower tummy instead of your nose, be aware of how your belly fills when you inhale, and falls when you exhale. As you do so, feel any hardness in your belly gradually soften, breath by breath. Breathe into any tightness in your belly. Exhale any tensions this might release. (Ahh!)

    After a few sessions of conscious belly breathing, you might find your breathing fills your belly more than before, automatically. If so, just notice it. If not, no sweat. Breath eventually deepens of its own. Belly awareness creates conditions that can assist the process. This is the Buddha's way ~ providing the nourishment for seeds to become flowers.

    Note: This isn't yoga. That is, you aren't trying to control your breath, nor make it any different than it already is. Your job is to just watch it. It may seem like a paradox: controlling the breath to control the mind, without controlling anything, just observing. But that's the name of the game. Try and control the mind, and it becomes even harder to tame, like a wild horse, or a child throwing a tantrum.

    And these are just training wheels. Your meditation's not about nose or tummy (not to mention the parameningeal epigastrum). Basic meditation is about letting body, mind, and breath get reacquainted, and watching these old friends work together.

    Making Each Breath Count

    Counting's another way to focus awareness on breath, and keep your mind from wandering. Try this: calmly breathe out, say to yourself "one," then breathe in that "one," and breathe out, and begin "two." Don't think of anything else but your breath. Just your breathing in, your breathing out, and then a very quick, light count. And nothing else. At "four," return to "one," again. If your mind wanders, as it does, begin all over again, at "one."

    Here are two open secrets about counting. 1) You're not an idiot if you can't make it all the way to four. But if you can do four sets of "four," simple as 1-2-3, then just observe your breath without counting. 2) You don't have to feel like an idiot to return to such simplicity as 1-2-3-4; these are basics of life. Buddhism means back to basics.

    Remember, keep your attention on your breathing, not the count.

    Words to Meditate by:
    Mantras and Gathas

    Besides body awareness and counting, two more options for focusing awareness on breathing and quieting the mind are verbal:

    A mantra (mohn-trah) can be a word or phrase repeated to aid our memory. Thus when we repeat the Buddha's name, we're remembering him. They can also symbolize and communicate a certain energy or deity, as well as erase bad habit energy by substituting positive consciousness. Mantras can be recited aloud or mentally. Hindus might chant, "Om." Christians, "Amen" or "Alleluia." Muslims, "Allah." Jews, "Shalom." (However, Jimmy the Greek says you should take firm control of your spiritual destiny: don't leave anything to chants.)

    One mantra many people use when beginning conscious breathing meditation, is mentally saying to themselves "IN" while breathing in, and "OUT" while breathing out. Concentrating on each word focuses the mind on breathing. In. Out. One single word for one single breath. Some people mentally recite them "in-in-in" and "out-out-out."

    A gatha (verse) attributed to the Buddha is:

    As a solid rock stands firm in the wind
    Just so the wise are unmoved by praise or blame

    (That is, unshaken by ordinary affairs.) A gatha by Zen patriarch Dogen:

    Realization, neither general nor particular,
    is effort without desire.
    Clear water all the way to the bottom;
    a fish swims like a fish.
    Vast sky transparent throughout;
    a bird flies like a bird.

    A Buddhist gatha (gah-thah) is a stanza or verse from a sutra, or an individual's expression of spiritual insight. Some can be recited mentally ~ you might think of them as prayers, but not exactly so because they're not expressed to any supreme deity. For example, a stanza in the Buddha's Sutra on Full Awareness of Breathing says:

    Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in
    Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
    Using that gatha as a conscious breathing tool, say the first line to yourself when breathing in, the second when breathing out. It's very suitable for a 20- to 30-minute meditation. If you find that during meditation it's shortened to just the words "in" and "out," that's alright. Just keep your awareness on the breathing not the words.

    Thich Nhat Hanh has written this lovely gatha, which I highly recommend for conscious breathing:

    Breathing in, I'm aware of the present moment.
    Breathing out, I'm aware it's a wonderful moment.
    Breathing in, I calm my body.
    Breathing out, I smile.
    Think the first line to yourself, breathing in; the second, exhaling; the third, inhaling; the last, exhaling. Then return to the beginning. After you get the hang, you can use a kind of mental shorthand:

    [In] think "Present moment"
    [Out] think "Wonderful moment"
    [In] think "Calm"
    [Out] think "Smile"

    Slowing, Deepening, and Release:
    A Distinct Pleasure

    The preceding tools (skillful means) help spotlight breathing with a mindful ray of awareness. At first, you might not have even been aware you were breathing. Half the time, who is?! Gradually, you'll become more familiar with it and its landscape. If a breath's long, take notice of that fact. Just make a mental note. If another breath's short, just take notice of that.

    Become aware too of the beginning, the middle, and the end of each in-breath and out-breath. Also pay attention to how breath begins: after an out-breath, and without your willing it, a new breath will appear. All by itself. ("Ta-DAH!") Notice too how breath flows. Is it powerful or soft; shallow or deep? And if there's a space in between breaths, notice that, too. Train yourself to notice each of these qualities. Emily Dickinson once called herself "inebriate of air," but connoisseur of air will do just fine.

    As you learn to become more and more immersed in awareness of your breathing, one very interesting thing you'll eventually notice is that your breathing ~ and your body, and your emotions, and your mind ~ will calm. Slowing down. Deepening.

    You might experience a feeling of at-oneness ... a sense of release ... and pleasure. A new kind of pleasure, maybe. If so, go with it. You deserve it. You've earned it. By simply being. Remember the picture of the smiling Buddha in Chapter 2: Meditation can bring not only peace but also great joy.

    "'I am breathing in and making my whole body calm and at peace.' It is like drinking a cool glass of lemonade on a hot day and feeling your body become cool inside. When you breathe in, the air enters your body and calms all the bells of your body. At the same time each 'cell' of your mind also becomes more peaceful. The three are one, and each one is all three. This is the key to meditation. Breathing brings the sweet joy of meditation to you. You become joyful, fresh, and tolerant, and everyone around you will benefit."

    ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

    Returning to the idea of our nostrils as doorways, Suzuki Roshi gives a marvelous teaching when he calls breathing a hinge. We breathe in, he says, and air comes into the inner world; exhale, air goes to the outer world. Inner world / outer world ~ both endless. Actually, there's but one world, the whole world. Breath passes through us like someone going through a swinging door. "When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement," Suzuki continues, "there is nothing: no 'I,' no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door."

    ~ return to top

    Turning Off the Radio:
    Quieting the Mind

    "Turning off the radio" is Robert Aitken Roshi's phrase, and I love it. Don't you just immediately know what he means?! Of course, since he coined it, it's become only more apt. That is, we've become a soundtracked nation, with music to study by, cassettes to drive by, CDs to walk by, and less and less opportunity for us to have big ears for the utterly unique and even amazing all-natural sounds all around, within and without. And the silence with which they're interwoven. Artificial stimuli usually don't quiet the mind but preempt it, with somebody else's agenda and doings. Quieting the mind's very basic. It's shushing the mind's verbal activity the way an audience quiets down when a concert or movie is about to begin. Stop, look, listen ... and hear. Here!

    A common Buddhist image of the mind is of a monkey swinging from branch to branch, from a smell to a sight, from mental remorse to emotional rehearsal, etc. More vividly, they say an untrained mind's like a drunken monkey stung by a bee. Not someone you'd like to invite home to meet your parents. Another comparison's to an elephant in heat; well, you can imagine. Basic meditation, then, is the opposite of all that: stopping and being still.

    Radio noise can fade into the background. The drunken monkey can stop twirling the dial. Does it ever go entirely off, much less stay off? For now, don't worry about that. That is, don't expect your mind to go blank, and if it does, don't worry, it'll come back. Here are three tips for optimal mind-watching:

    Notice What You Notice

    Quieting your mind is like calming your breath. You're not trying to make anything happen. Your job's just to breathe and observe. Observe your breath, and all its qualities. And if thoughts come, observe them, too ~ but don't invite them to sit down with you for tea. Unattended, they'll go off on their own merry way. ("All conditioned things have their arising, and their passing away.")

    Be like a mirror, or mountain lake, that reflects whatever passes before it. Tibetan Buddhists suggest just watching your thoughts the way an old person on a park bench watches children at play. Don't even pay attention to which kids are yours or not. Your thoughts aren't necessarily you.

    Appreciate Sounds (Ker-Plunk!)
    As Well as Silence

    The concept of silencing the mind's a stereotype. Meditation's not a sensory deprivation tank, though in a real sensory deprivation tank you'll still hear your heart, and your nervous system. So don't be surprised to find meditation accompanied by the gentle drums of your pulse, the lilting flute of your breath, and the hummmmm of body-mind. They're just part of the furnishings, along for the ride.

    Sound meditation. Sit where you won't be disturbed. Close your eyes. Relax. Take a few, slow, full conscious breaths. Listen to whatever sounds come to your ears. Be only ears. Big ears. Let sounds grow more vivid. Don't label, other than all being "The Sound of the Universe," or "Life." As if it's all music, a special symphony, and you've been given the best seat in the house. When done, take some time to reacquaint yourself with your surroundings. Listen for any encores.

    Treat your senses the same as your thoughts. You might hear the jagged yawp of a bird, the corkscrewing siren of a passing fire truck, the rumble of a window shaken by the wind. Just hear what you hear. Without reacting. Passing cars might be more soothing than you'd expect, more like ocean waves. (Let go of your prejudices and preconceptions, and listen.) And notice how sounds overlap in curious, unrepeatable rhythms! All they mean is that you're here, and now. Let whatever comes to your senses during meditation awaken you to that fact. And continue to enjoy your breathing.

    Be Mindful and Compassionate
    Toward Yourself

    Meditation can have its ups and downs. Remember to smile. Why not treat your mind as a mother would her own child. Have compassion for yourself. Smile at your habitual schemes and scenarios. By just letting them be, and being compassionately aware of them, you can let them go. Remember, there wouldn't be doors without walls, so don't bang your head on them! Be kind to yourself.

    This also applies for dealing with other people's baggage. As you learn compassion for your own baggage ~ you'll have it for others'. Compassion for all beings includes yourself. If you can't be kind to yourself, who else can you be kind to?

    ~ return to top

    Each Step You Take on This
    Green Earth Brings Peace

    Walking meditation's my favorite. (The Japanese name for it is kinhin.) It's often used as an opportunity to stretch after sitting. But in and of itself it can be a marvelous and very powerful practice.

    It's thought that when primates first stood, that freed their forelimbs (wow! a whole new world). So brains expanded to meet that challenge. (Note which followed which.) Thus dawned the human species, the only species comfortable on two legs. In the mere act of walking, of being bipedal, we can reclaim an ancient wisdom hidden just beneath the whirl-a-gig surface of our ever faster-paced world: walking literally creates the world, our world. Step by step.

    Indoors or outdoors, find some place where you can walk without obstruction or interruption. A backyard will do, a quiet street, a big emptyish room, or a long, clear hallway. Your hands can be at your side. Or you can form a cosmic mudra (which is what I do). Some people join their palms in a gassho. Others make a fist and cover it with the other hand and hold them both to their navel or hara. Still others join their hands behind their back, like a bird with folded wings.

    Let that sky hook pull your upper body up, and let your lower body just hang naturally. Your feet are apart about the width of your hips, and maybe bare, terrain permitting. Center yourself in your breathing for a moment. Then begin. Step forward with your left foot as you inhale. Exhale as you step forward with your right foot. One breath per step (yup! that slow). And when you come to a corner or the end of your allotted space, you just make a turn, 180° or 90° ~ two steps will do the trick ~ without breaking the pace.

    Your assignment's to be aware of your breath and your motion, allowing them to coordinate comfortably, and see, too, how your mind interplays as you do so. At first, let the pace be slowwwwww. Thich Nhat Hanh has a few suggestions for you to get the hang. Visualize you're a king or queen, making a decree with each step. Or visualize yourself a lion or lioness, walking so slowly. Or visualize a flower blossoming from every step. Once you get the hang, and work up to 20 minutes of it, notice if there's anything different about how you feel.

    It is said that, upon Enlightenment, the first thing the Buddha did was walking meditation, around the bodhi tree. Maybe that's one reason I like it so. What to do after the proverbially Hard Act To Follow; meditation-in-action, engaged in the world; arriving at choiceless awareness and animating it. For me, each step becomes a pilgrimage ... arriving at the only destination there ever is: the present moment, our true home ... a journey, stepping out, into the universe, the unknown ... feeling the earth coming up in response, meeting my foot ... grateful for that literal solid support, otherwise taken for granted ... and finding stillness, peace, and joy. And it's a fantastic body massage too! But that's just my attempt to verbalize my own experience of it. Everyone has their own. Try it, and see.

    "People say that walking on water is a miracle, but to me, walking peacefully on the Earth is the real miracle. The Earth is a miracle. Each step is a miracle. Taking steps on our beautiful planet can bring real happiness."

    ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

    Some tips:

    Once you've accomplished 20 minutes of walking one-breath-per-step, I think you'll notice the difference. Then you can try three steps per breath. You might say "in, in, in" as you step left-right-left, and "out, out, out," with the next three. Or you can try the four-line gatha, in the preceding section, one line for each breath. You might discover your own gatha for walking meditation. As Dharma teacher and gardener Wendy Johnson was doing kinhin one day she found herself mentally saying to herself "Walking on the green earth" (breathing in), "each step is peace" (breathing out). (She says the words came up to her through the soles of her feet.) Try it out.

    By taking just one peaceful step, you're affirming that peace in the world is possible. Don't just imagine it: Be it. Remember, "There is no path to peace. Peace is the path."

    ~ return to top

    First-Aid Kit for
    Beginners' Problems

    Meditation's like that center often referred to when people speak of being centered. Bull's eye. Accessible all the time. Your teacher and sangha are the best medicine for hindrances you may encounter along the path. Here are a few Standard Operating Procedure (S.O.P.) remedies:

    All the little tips and tricks in the world are just that. Counting to 4 or 10, mantra or beads. They can be very useful. Cherish them when you use them, but don't grow attached to them. They're like a raft. Once you reach the other shore, you don't go walking around wearing your raft on your head like a hat; you leave it behind, and move on.

    The Least You Need to Know

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