By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
*This is the second installment of Gerry Stribling’s “Freedom from Fear” series, exclusively for The Tattooed Buddha
“They” say that coloring in an adult coloring book is as good for you as meditation.
They are right. I color myself. I’m into intricate mandalas and florals. I have an erotic coloring book too, but it’s kind of a bust. I just went through it and colored everyone’s naughty bits.
Beginning meditators are plagued with random thoughts. Coloring books demand your attention. Get one, and then spend an hour carefully coloring some intricate random pattern. That’s what calming (Samatha) meditation feels like. You don’t know how much time is passing because that’s not important. You feel refreshed and revived because you quit thinking for an hour about everything but: what color should I make these breast-esses?
The problem with “activity meditation” (yoga excluded), and even some well-regarded meditation training regimens like Transcendental Meditation®, is that they only take you so far. The same is true for the disciplines centered around chanting, like Soka Gakkai. It’s a wonderful thing to be rendered thoughtless, (sex does the same thing), but that is not enlightenment.
You achieve enlightenment by either sitting on a cushion, or through advanced yoga practice. Either it’s your ass (as in sitting on your ass) or your head (as in standing on your head). The methods are very similar—the goal is about controlling your mind like an accomplished yoga practitioner can control the body. Harkening back to brain chemistry, when you quiet your mind, you’re draining your brain of adrenaline, and replacing it with endorphins (or, if you prefer, endolphins).
It’s very pleasant.
The promise of reaching a state of mind that allows yourself to penetrate your mind and achieve insight, is the next step meditators can take once they’ve learned to control their thoughts. Their “monkey minds” give beginning meditators a reason to quit, believing that they’re incapable of turning off their thoughts. That’s called “beating yourself up” and it’s not allowed in either Buddhist meditation or yoga. You can’t turn off your thoughts, and it is a waste of time attempting to. That’s not the objective; the trick is learning to only think about one thing.
The most truly meditative thing I’ve ever done lasted for three months when I walked a section of the Appalachian Trail. Walking from morning until nightfall—12 and 14 hours at a stretch, all alone—I had a mantra that coursed through my head. It was the same one I used on training marches in the Marines: “Pickin em up, and puttin em down, pickin em up, and puttin em down…” And of course mindfulness was necessary this whole time, to avoid stepping on rattlesnakes or walking into trees or falling off cliffs—all of which I did that summer.
So, here’s how you tame your monkey mind, which I learned from a Zen monk:
- Assume the position, normally sitting cross-legged on a cushion (or if that sucks for you, in a chair). Keep your back straight. It’s okay to allow the seat-back to support your back—you’re not a ballerina. Put your hands on your thighs (not your neighbor’s thighs). Close your eyes, or leave them open. Nobody cares. If you leave your eyes open, then you can fix your gaze on something (keep your eyes off your neighbor’s thighs). Recommended: eyes about thirty percent open, as it will keep you from falling asleep.
- Breathe. Notice the sensations of breathing, but don’t worry about concentrating on it yet. That comes later. Don’t speed up or slow down your breathing. Breathe naturally. Breathe like you’d breathe if you weren’t observing your breath.
- Annnnnnnnnnnd, in your head, count your breaths, in-out one, in-out two, etc., up to 10 and then back down to one again. Most beginning meditations, and even some more practiced meditators who try this technique, can’t make it past three or four without a thought of some kind intruding. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Everybody goes through this. Just gently remind yourself what you’re supposed to be doing, and start again at one. Not beating yourself up about your failings is a big part of enlightenment. Just keep counting… just keep counting… I want a new computer… oops, in-out one, in-out two…
- Do this for five minutes once a day. Meditation, like any sport, is a skill, and skills require practice. It gets better every time. Don’t do this practice for more than five minutes, but do it every day. It takes a good two weeks to be skilled enough to start at one, up to ten, and back down to one, for five minutes without thinking about anything else. Set achievable goals.
- Once you achieve the five minute benchmark, you’re ready to start going longer, and the counting becomes less and less necessary. If you can work your way up to two 20 minute sessions every day, you’re ready to penetrate.
You can then work on Insight (Vipassana) Meditation, which has the potential of taking you where you’ve never been before.
Or you can go back to coloring.
Editor: Dana Gornall