Friday, May 13, 2005

Contemplative Cat

Karen Armstead has a pair of well-written entries on her meditation practice; read this, then this. If you're in a special Internet looky-loo mode, follow all the links she gives. I myself have only scanned most of those links, but they seem thought-provoking and worth-while.

One of the points I get from Ms. Armstead's first post is that if a meditation practice is not working for you - if, for example, physical discomfort is making it impossible for you to meditate - then you should alter your practice. Ms. Armstead chooses situations where her back may be supported, which seems very wise to me (perhaps because I do the same).

Her second post responds to a haiku by Morgan which accuses Karen of being a typically self-centered American. I suppose I should say "seems to accuse," as a haiku is not a form conducive to intellectual argument. The implication only becomes clear only after one follows the two other links in the haiku.

As I have said before, I have - at best - a superficial understanding of Buddhism. What I know is from secondary sources (e.g., Alan Watts, Thomas Merton, etc.) or translations of Zen texts. My no doubt ill-informed impression is that there are almost as many "schools" of Buddhism as there are denominations in Christianity.

So, it's somewhat surprising to me that someone would claim there is a "right" method of meditation or zazen. Buddhism has no central authority that I am aware of; the Dalai Lama would have a good chuckle if we sought to treat him as some sort of Buddhist Pope. It's hard to imagine that sort of fundamentalism (as Karen calls it) or orthodoxy in Buddhism.

In fact, I've seen a number of quotes (again, in translation) which lead me to believe that the moment someone aims to practice zazen in the proper manner, one is already aiming in the wrong direction.

I described my own practice a couple of weeks ago, but I will repeat it now. I sit in my living room in a half-lotus position, with my back propped against the couch. I gently strike my Tibetan Singing Bowl, and set a handy timer for 5 minutes. I breath in, I breath out.

My mind wanders. I breathe in. I breathe out.

DJ walks on the couch behind, meowing in confusion.

I breathe in. I breathe out.

DJ sniffs my hands, which lay open on my knees. I breathe in. I breathe out.

Like Karen, I have set aside the same time of day to do my contemplation. I do it as soon as I get home (after I've changed to comfy clothes). I currently do this for five minutes, as I say, but my goal is to increase by a minute or so every week until I hit 10 - 15 minutes. This incremental increase system was recommended to me when I attended a seminar on breath prayer 20 years ago.

I don't perceive myself as doing Buddhist zazen. I am aiming for contemplative prayer. I suppose some would object to the "foreign" elements, such as the yoga posture or the singing bowl. These are not purely Christian.

Even the notion of "contemplative prayer" is foreign to some, although there are records of this practice in the Desert Fathers, as well as others in the early church.

I have no control over whether people are offended. I do this practice for myself, not for others. I am selective about whom I tell about my practice. So far, I have chosen wisely.

I cannot claim the same benefits that Karen mentions in connection with her meditation. But I have only maintained this discipline for a couple of weeks.

There has been one minor change. Like Karen, it has to do with my behavior in traffic. For the past couple of months, prior to the prayer discipline, I have been especially anxious and impatient in traffic. I don't shout, even in the comfort of my car, but I am aware of my impatience - sometimes literally drumming my fingers on the steering wheel.

Just Tuesday evening, the car in front of me was going a fraction under the speed limit. I could feel impatience rise up. And I thought to myself: "Here's an opportunity to practice patience."

Then I breathed in, and breathed out. Just as I would if I were sitting in contemplative prayer.

And I calmed down. If I had been wearing a blood pressure cough, I am sure the readings would have markedly decreased.

As with Buddhist meditation, one does not submit to the discipline of contemplative prayer with the goal of becoming a better person, or to achieve an ecstatic state, or even to attain nirvana. In contemplative prayer, to paraphrase The Cloud of Unknowing, the goal is to aim the heart to God as if it were an arrow. The goal, then is the Divine (however one Names it), not the ego-self.

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