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a spiritual practice: I am what I do


In this article, I am going to talk quite a bit about meditation. But the article is not really about meditation. It’s about your life. I’m just using meditation as a way to introduce some ideas to make my point at the end of the article.

When you take training in meditation, part of what you learn is “technical” (for instance, in Zen meditation, how to sit). Another part of what you learn is a new language for a new experience.

There are many different ways to meditate. My original training was in Zen meditation. I was taught to count my breath, silently, as a way to focus my attention on the breath. I was taught to refer to this form of meditation as “My practice is counting my breath”.

There are other ways to meditate. For instance, instead of sitting, you can be doing a walking meditation. Instead of counting your breath, you could be meditating on a mantra, or a koan…

Whatever technique you use, the practice of that technique gives you some of the benefits of meditation. But this doesn’t mean that meditation can be done any old way. The specifics of what you do matter: unless you focus your attention on a given technique, you may be relaxing, daydreaming, free-associating… you’re probably not meditating (which is getting to a focused state of mindfulness).

As you practice more, you get more and more of the benefits of meditation. You train your mind to get into that focused mindful state.

Practice: There’s something very simple, and also very difficult to grasp, about the concept of “practice”. For most of my adult life, I have been very interested in Zen -- as a stimulating bunch of ideas. It took me a long time to make the leap from reading about it to actually doing what they say is important: practicing meditation.

This may sound like I now practice meditation regularly. I don’t. I am still struggling. Sometimes, I meditate fairly often. Sometimes, I don’t.

You define yourself by your practice.
My practice is counting my breath.

Counting your breath: paying attention to each inhalation and exhalation. Counting, silently, one, two,… through ten. And then starting again at one. Strange how easy it is to find yourself at “eleven” (or “fifteen”, or more) because your mind wanders out, you’re just counting mechanically, you’re no longer focusing on gong back to “one” after “ten”.

The key word is practice. Paying attention. Observing what happens in your mind.

I have trouble with that. Like many people in our day and age, I am part of a sound bite culture, the small attention span, the attraction to what is new, different and exciting.

It’s not that counting per se (even counting your breath) is especially spiritual.

What is important is that, as you pay attention to counting your breath, you become more aware of the inner chatter of your mind. As you become more aware of it, noticing and gently struggling with it, you gain a sense of who you are, behind that chatter.
What is spiritual is the experience you have of a deeper sense of who you are.

So, you get my point: the key word is “practice’. As you go on with your practice (say, counting your breath) you get more and more the opportunity to observe what you are.

Now, why not go one step further?
I mean, instead of just talking about the meditation practice, you ask yourself what it is that you spend your days doing, i.e. practicing?

What is it that you do with your days?
In what way does this practice shape you?
In what ways would you want to change this practice?


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