Sunday, July 28, 2013

Quarterbacks and Golfers: some thoughts on moving and sitting meditation

 My relationship with sitting meditation practice now is quite similar to what my relationship with asana practice used to be.  That is to say, it fluctuates between periods of earnest dedication to one particular form and periods of not so much.  When it's on and humming, I feel great, feel the benefits, and I resolve that this is the time I stick with it.  Then it fades.  Other shit creeps in, and, having firm and solid dedication to asana practice, I let sitting practice go.  Then my schedule shifts, or a workshop happens, and I'm back in the saddle again.  I feel great, feel the benefits, and I resolve that this is the time I stick with and not let it go.  As of this writing I've resumed a regular practice again.  Feeling great, the benefits, etc. etc.

Now, the goal of meditation, whether sitting or moving, is to attain a state of single-pointed mental focus.  We call it ekagarata.  This focus can be narrow or expansive.  Consider athletes from two different sports: As an example of narrow focus, the golfer on the putting green has only one thing to consider.  He is focused entirely on the ball.  On the other hand, the quarterback in football must be pretty much equally aware of everything happening on the field (a very important distinction, mind you) at the same time. His focus is expansive.  In each case the athlete must have a calm, clear, mind unobstructed by emotions such as fear, anger, or anticipation of victory.  I think this model could be applied to sitting practice and asana practice.  When sitting, focus is narrow; when doing asana, focus is expansive.  Just to be extra clear, for the asana practitioner the body is the field.  There are two systems of sitting meditation with which I'm familiar, each with a different "ball" on which to focus.  One is the Anapanasati style, which I learned from my teacher Kino.  The other is Transcendental Meditation.  I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation by Narasimhan (of Jayashree and Narasimhan fame).

Upon initiation into Transcendental Meditation (hereafter TM) one is given a mantra by the teacher. It is not a mantra in the conventional sense, typically it is a just a one or two syllable phoneme--  "a word that don't mean nothin', like looptid," as the old song says.  As one sits, one continues to bring back the mind, gently, to the mantra.  You don't fight the thoughts that bubble up, you just come back to the mantra.  It has been compared to housebreaking a puppy.  Just keep putting the puppy (your mind) back on the newspaper (the mantra) every time it poops or pees (the bubbling up of thoughts).  You have to be patient and gentle with your mind, as you would a puppy.  The rules, as it were, of TM are quite simple: it should be done for twenty minutes, twice a day, you should begin and end your practice sitting up, and eyes should be kept closed.  You can shift, scratch, lie down-- just keep your eyes closed.  In my experience the effects of TM are felt especially in the somatic field.  A body high, to use stoner parlance.  The relaxation is really really profound.

In Anapanasati meditation practice is done once a day, anywhere between twenty minutes to an hour.  The "housebreaking the puppy" principle, basically the same as it is in TM, is there but the object of focus is physical as opposed to conceptual.  One brings one's attention back to the nostrils and the upper lip, focusing on the air coming in and out.  Anapanasati is more rigid, and therefore more physically rigorous than TM.  Once the clock starts you are asked not to move at all.  No scratching, shifting, eye opening, I believe if you're really really doing it you aren't even supposed to swallow.  Sleeping feet, and I mean asleep to the point of paralysis from the knee down, can be a risk.

So, for some basic pros and cons of each system:  TM is great, but it can be really tricky to carve out to separate spaces of twenty minutes daily for busy people.  I find myself in guilt loops when trying to maintain regular TM practice.  Anapanasati meditation only requires one shot a day, but it is a pretty type-A practice.  As Ashtangis our asana practice is already type-A so this system can feel burdensome.  Both systems, I can vouch from experience, function in a way slightly similar to SSRI's (anti-depressants such as Prozac or Zoloft) in that you don't feel the effects really until about a month in to regular practice.  Then one day, you realize you're calmer, happier, and things are a better.

Here's some food for thought.  Sitting meditation practice has helped me see how mentally corrosive popular music is.  There's nothing more hellish than settling down and into a practice with five seconds of Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" looping through your head.  I see the point that fundamentalist Muslims have in their proscription of music.

If you can't or don't want to work sitting practice into your daily life that's cool.  I have heard both Sharath and Manju Jois be overtly disdainful of it.  Each has said that the expansive (my term, not theirs) meditation which comes from asana practice is sufficient.  I have heard other senior teachers say otherwise.  I do invite you to try it, though.  It helps me, for sure.


  1. I think everyone should include sitting meditation. I never followed the "mad attention" thing, because I think Pattabhi Jois mainly didn't teach meditation, because a) people weren't ready for it and b) there were too many people.

    I'm very much like you in the sense that I've shifting dedication, even though I know meditation is very good for me. Guess it's because I forget about the "medication" once the mood is better :-)

    Hope your emotional situation has improved!

  2. hi kitharo. thanks for reading and commenting. the stopping of the medication, of any type, once symptoms have abated is indeed a very insidious trap that said, my emotional situation has improved, but i'm still sittin'. i think you are probably on to something about guruji's reluctance to teach sitting meditation. he even stopped teaching pranayama at some point, too.