Zen and the Cello

The world-famous cellist, Pablo Casals, was once asked why he practiced eight hours a day, considering his already incredible skills. His reply? “Because I think I’m beginning to make some progress.”

In meditation, these are words to live by. No matter how many hours, days, weeks or years we’ve spent meditating, each and every day is brand new, with different situations affecting our mind. Just going to sit down and do some zazen (sitting meditation) every day, even if it’s only for ten minutes, is a great act of courage.

Why courage? Because you are taking the time to dedicate to your own mental health, and through helping yourself you are better able to help the world. And it takes courage to help the world, alongside resilience and inner strength.

Every time we sit down to meditate, we are performing an act of devotion. We are devoting ourselves to our practice, and in this case, practice does not make perfect; it makes for continual practice. There is no permanency in life; nothing is the same as it was a moment ago. Everything is in constant change, and sometimes those changes are too miniscule for us to see with our eyes. But it is still there, flowing, changing, moving in a world of impermanence. Even the insight that you may gain while sitting down in meditation is impermanent.

It may come as a flash, that brief moment of enlightenment. But then it’s gone, and we are left to carry that tiny insight with us into the rest of our lives, to help us learn and cultivate new insights. That moment where we realise that all is one, that we are all connected, where our ego drops away and we know; that moment of insight is impermanent, like everything else. You will not forever be at peace once you have gained this insight, nor will you become some enlightened being. What that flash of insight brings is more practice, so that you can understand and cultivate that awareness more and more into your daily life. Practice makes practice.

We might like to think that once we have gained some insight, that we have had some sort of “awakening”. But here’s the thing: when we go to sleep every night we still awaken every morning. We don’t just wake up once and have done with it. We constantly need to go through the cycle of sleep and wakefulness. It is so with our minds as well.

Someone who thinks that they are enlightened, that they know all that they need to know, is perhaps one of the most ignorant people on this planet. I’ve been there. We all have, at some point or other. And then we wake up and realise that it is a continuous process of awakening to our lives and to the world. We learn, we grow, we change each and every day. Sometimes we regress, sometimes we progress, but it is still work of some kind.

I like to think that with age, I have developed some sense of being no more than who I am in the moment, right now, and that’s enough. And as soon as I have that moment, it’s gone, and I’ve changed, we’ve all changed. There is nothing special about gaining this information or insight. It’s just me, it’s just you, it’s just how things are right now at this point in time. And that’s all that we can do. As Martin Luther said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Except maybe to practice the cello.

For more on Zen and especially in relation to Druidry, see my book: Zen for Druids.

Ten little seconds…

Meditation can be done for many different reasons. Some use it to find inner peace, others to help find a focus in their lives and their work, others to increase compassion in their lives and for others. But for the most part, I think an aspect of meditation that is often over-looked is the simple aspect of it being nice to just stop every once in a while, sit down and enjoy the moment.

I use meditation for all the reasons given above, and more. But it’s in the simple pleasure of stopping where perhaps it is of most use. Taking the time to light some candles and incense, get some cushions out and just simply “be” is a great gift that I can give to myself at the end of a busy day or week. As I sit in front of my altar, I allow all the thoughts that are running through my head to make themselves known to me, rather than just being background stress and noise. Eventually, the thoughts slow down, quieten and then comes that exquisite moment when all is still. No more mental gymnastics. No more body twitches, itches or squirming trying to find a comfortable, relaxed position. Everything settles, even if  this feeling lasts for just ten seconds, and it is good. Better than good. The heart opens, the mind and body are one. There is nothing but myself and the world, here and now, sitting, breathing, peaceful.

Having even ten seconds to still the mind, to allow it to take a break from all the thoughts has an enormous effect on you for days afterwards. Taking the time to allow you to set aside the cares and worries, the reminiscing and the to-do lists, the work and the family issues has a profound effect not only on your mind but also on your body. Have you ever just sat on the couch after a busy day, flopped onto the sofa and just stopped for a minute or two? Meditation is the same thing, for your mind and your body, allowing it a moment of rest.

In that deep silence, when that moment is achieved, we can have some profound realisations as well. When we stop the mental chatter, we allow ourselves to refocus on what really matters in our lives. Just a few seconds of that blissful silent state can alter our perception and allow us to put things into perspective. What really matters? Not what the guy said to you in that social media group. Not the office gossip or your infuriating work colleague. We find that spending a little time in the quiet of our homes or meditation space, whether inside or outside, allows us to see that it’s in the joy of being alive right now, and the people that we actually physically share our lives with that really matter. Our family and friends. Our home. Our gardens. Our religion or spirituality. The Earth. Our perspective can get so skewed by what is happening in the world around us. Allowing us to stop and refocus changes everything.

It’s amazing what ten little seconds can achieve.

Cover 1To find out more about meditation, stillness and finding peace, try my little e-book, The Stillness Within: Finding Inner Peace in a Conflicted World.

Living Meditation


(Photo credit: Les Piccolo)

It’s funny how I was just thinking about getting enough sleep this morning and then I came across Leo’s latest blog.

Meditation can be especially hard if we haven’t had enough sleep.  Sleep is so important to many things in our live – from motor skills to regeneration of new cell tissue.  Yet how often do we ignore the signs that we need more sleep, or are unable to meet the demands that our body requires due to the nature of our lives?

Sometimes when I’m meditating I find that my eyes are closing, and my head is falling to my chest. At that point, I give up on meditation and, if it’s not in the evening, have a lie down and a nap (or otherwise just go to bed). I too have tried to get up early in order to meditate, but dance rehearsals and classes at night often equate to a sluggish morning while my body is still recuperating from the exercise. Meditating afterwards is not possible, for I am just too tired.  The best time of day for me to meditate is around 3 – 5pm, however this is not always possible. Yet I still try to meditate every day, in some form, preferably sitting still so that my mind stills even as my body stills.

People with young children often live a life of perpetual sleep-deprivation.  There is a Zen story about a mother who berated herself for not having the time to spend in meditation as she was too busy looking after her child. A Zen monk told her that looking after her child was her meditation – as long as she was fully aware of the moments she had with her child.

Meditation is much more than just sitting on a cushion focusing on the breath, or pondering a problem, journeying within our minds or chanting mantras while holding our hands in mudras.  Meditation is life – all that we need do is to bring a conscious awareness to our lives in order to achieve this.

When I am at work, if I am focused on the work, aware of my surroundings and my reactions to situations, then I am meditating.  When I am driving to or from the office, absorbed in the driving itself, I am meditating. When I am at home from work and finding the time to sit on my zafu and focus on my breath, my thoughts and my feelings; then I am meditating. When I am washing the dishes in full awareness, I am meditating. When I am stroking the cat and listening to her purr, I am meditating.  When I am doing yoga, focusing on the postures, transitions and breath, I am meditating. When I am dancing, aware of every movement in my own body and my fellow dancers, I am meditating.

We often say that we do not have the time to meditate in our busy lives. If we simply cannot squeeze in even ten minutes a day for sitting meditation, we can always make our lives a living meditation. The choice is ours.

The benefits of meditation

Sitting in meditation with awareness transcends into every aspect of your life. I know it has done mine. It’s so hard, and yet so simple – simply to sit for at least 15 mins to half an hour each day, in total awareness.

At first it’s really hard not to fidget – trying to get comfortable, the mind is doing everything it can to move the body so that we don’t have to feel this very moment, in all its glory or mundaneness. That is my biggest hurdle – the sitting still part. Sometimes I simply can’t, and then a walking meditation will take the place of sitting meditation. However, the importance of keeping that butt on that cushion should not be underestimated.

Forcing myself into stillness, I can then imagine a rock being thrown into a pond – it settles to the bottom of its own accord, and find the stillness. Then, it is time to simply “be” in the present moment. Feeling the tension in my shoulders, hearing the wind howl outside, thick with snow. Hearing the central heating come on, the soft padding of a cat entering the room. Smelling the incense, seeing the light of the candle upon my altar. For a few, brief moments, it is blissful and relaxing.

Then come the thoughts – anyone who has ever tried to meditate knows the flurry of thoughts that will fly through your head at any given moment. It can sometimes be a Herculean task to just sit when all these thoughts are going through your head – if you’re moving, you don’t have to think about them, or notice that they are passing through your head with lightning speed. But sitting still and facing all these thoughts – it can sometimes seem futile. I’ve heard so many people say “I can’t meditate – I can’t turn off, switch off; I keep thinking a million things”. You’ve got to persevere.

So, in sitting meditation, in zazen, we don’t try to push away all these thoughts – what we learn to do is to become the observer. It’s all about noticing the thoughts that go through the mind, without attaching to them and becoming lost in them. As soon as we attach to them, we’ve lost our awareness, our sense of being an observer – instead we are a willing or unwilling participant in them, and the benefits of meditation we will rarely see.

So, with all these thoughts whizzing through my head, I become the observer. I notice that I’m thinking about the belly dance show that I’m putting on in October, that I have to start dinner soon, that a friend hasn’t been in contact for months, that the car windscreen has a sticky annoying film on it that just won’t go away – noticing the thoughts without going into them – which is supremely difficult for some thoughts. And I am not always successful either, but I eventually do catch myself getting absorbed in the thoughts at some point, and bring my attention and awareness back into the room where I am sitting in front of the alter, with the candle and incense and cats sleeping around me.

Slowly, the more and more I meditate, the less and less I become absorbed in these thoughts. However, we all have good days and bad days. But I have found when I don’t meditate for a few days, I can and do get lost in my thoughts, creating drama out of them, or becoming easily annoyed with myself or other people around me – losing that sense of connectedness, compassion and empathy. For the benefits of sitting meditation carry through into all aspects of life – seeping through like springwater into the surrounding areas, benefiting all with its nourishment.

The more I do zazen, the less irritable I am (though again, we all have good days and bad days). I notice tension in my body more throughout the day. I notice when I am being self-centred, and when I am losing myself in the drama that I have created to give my life more importance. Sitting meditation makes you realise that all this drama is self-created to a large extent. While some tragedies can still occur, the correlating attachment to them will be lessened, and life flows that much easier even in the midst of major trauma or upheaval.

You have to want to meditate. People who say they cannot perhaps haven’t tried hard enough, or don’t want it enough in their lives. You have to be willing to commit to a certain amount of time and effort each and every day, and also to a commitment not to change yourself, but to become better aware of yourself, and by doing so, flow through life better. Obstacles will still be there, but like water we can flow around them instead of slamming into them again and again, never getting any further along the way.

Your life will become more active, and less reactive – instead of reacting to every situation, you can act with empathy and compassion; your ability to respond well increases each and every day. It is a responsibility – the ability to respond. It is also learning discipline, to sit when you don’t feel like it, to be aware of your body when your mind and body both are rebelling against it, and would rather be in the made-up world of your mind instead of sitting in the reality of the here and now.

Slowly, that awareness gained through sitting meditation will affect everything you say and do, for the better. The goal is not self-improvement, however – the goal is to be in the here and now, this very moment in this very life, and to see the joy and wonder that it truly is. We are gifted with long lives, should nothing unforeseen happen, and minds that can be trained back into awareness – let’s use them to the best of our ability. By doing so, a sense of connection to the here and now, to all the beautiful life around us, will be achieved – which makes it worth the effort.