How to Meditate, Interview – April 16, 2010
HTM: What would you consider the most effective form of meditation in your life?
Rodney: OK, I have to premise my answer by saying "at this point in my life" because my answer is not the same answer I would have given three years ago— and possibly will be different three years from now. Anyway, the most effective form of meditation in my life is standing meditation.
HTM: I'm excited to hear about how standing works so well for you now, but you have piqued my curiosity. I want to ask what other forms have you used in the past.
Rodney: Well, I am a Quaker and our form of worship is what we call waiting meditation that could be described as a cross between Zen and Christian Contemplation—there is much to be said about that, but I want to be brief. In any case that process has been and still is a very important practice for me. I have also found Vipassana to be very intriguing and beneficial. My spiritual search has been greatly influenced by Buddhism, Castenada/Don Juan, Paramahansa Yogananda, Taoism and Christian Mysticism. So my approach has been sort of a mish-mash of styles.
HTM: Can you tell me briefly what waiting meditation entails?
Rodney: To quote from quakerinfo.org—
It is a time when friends become inwardly still and clear aside the activities of mind and body that usually fill our attention in order to create an opportunity to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, we still our minds and empty our cups. A major difference between this practice and what most know as meditation is that Quakers have no designated ministers. So if during worship one feels led, he/she will stand and share a message. Of course this breaks the silence. But we believe that if the leading is sincere, the message is to be shared.
HTM: It sounds so Zen to me that the focus is on emptying the mind. Were you successful at this, and was there any guidance given outside this suggestion?
Rodney: I've only been a Quaker for ten years now—I'm near fifty. I was already practicing meditation long before I started sitting with Quakers. So it was a very neat fit for me. My experience with Quakers has been that there is little to no guidance given unless one asks. I should also say that there is an enormous variety of Quaker beliefs and practices. So my explanation, while correct in general, is not comprehensive or absolute.
HTM: I am enjoying this interview and am quite honestly fascinated by your description of waiting meditation, so I'd like to break this into two parts and get a bit more clarity on this form before we move on to standing meditation. Would you say that the choice not to have a designated minister recognizes that we all have equal access to the divine?
Rodney: Oh yes. The other thing that is important to this school of thought is the place of scripture. While scripture is important, Quakers traditionally recognize that scripture is divinely-inspired words written by other mortals. So instead of focusing on the words themselves, per se, we focus on finding ourselves in that place where we too are equally inspired. That place is typically (though not exclusively) found through waiting worship, which leads to an experience where one is led to break the silence and share said inspiration with fellow worshipers.
HTM: I am assuming that the waiting is for this sort of clarity or inspiration. Is there a belief that waiting as a group is more powerful than waiting alone? Also, I want to get back to the question of emptying the mind. Is it a general consensus among Quakers that this is the way to contact the divine—empty space or formless awareness?
Rodney: I think Quaker worship is premised on this idea that Jesus said where two or more of His followers are gathered, He would be as well. Also, in the book of Acts, the followers of Jesus gathered in an upper room and waited on His return. His return was in the form of the Holy Spirit. I think that is what the "waiting" is about. The essence of Quakerism is the continuing Revelation of Jesus. And yes worshiping as a group is considered preferable to worshiping alone. But my experience with any type of meditation follows that— including Tai Chi and Qigong, which I consider moving meditation. Now I am no theologian, nor an expert on Quakerism. This is just the way I understand it.
HTM: There is something special about more than two as it implies a division being reconciled and unity of the common being recovered through communion. I actually had one more question about Quaker practice and that is whether it is believed that the divine is in us, or that the divine is external to us?
Rodney: Central to Quaker belief is that there is that of God in everyone. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand and within us.
HTM: I appreciate you sharing your understanding of the waiting meditation. Let's move on now to your current practice of standing meditation.
Rodney: Standing Meditation is a Tai Chi Qigong practice. It is both Qigong and meditation. The essence of the practice is centered on posture, breath, and calming the mind— emptying the cup. In the Taiji world we call it Wuji meditation. Wuji is the void, that that is beyond or before definition, before movement; stillness. Once we move, Wuji the void becomes Taiji, Yin Yang Movement. So in Wuji meditation, which actually encompasses standing, sitting, and lying, we focus on the void very much the same as in Zen.
Additionally we are concerned with breathing, not only as a mantra typical of meditation, but also Qigong breathing. Specifically Qigong focuses on pre-natal or reverse breathing. As the meditation process evolves, as we settle more into the void, our breathing may become tortoise breathing— or very shallow and slow, also typical of Zen. Out of those three types of Wuji, I prefer standing. Standing meditation has a specific focus on posture that is in keeping with Tai Chi and Qigong.
Our intention is to straighten out the spine. One does that by tucking in the backside, sucking in the gut, and stretching the neck up as if one had a string attached to the top of one's head. This fills in the hollow in the back and allows for easier flow of Qi through the body. This posture is the natural, but not the normal, posture for humans. Maintaining it is difficult at first, but very rewarding in the long run.
HTM: Is the breathing something you allow and simply watch or are you controlling it? I guess my question is about whether or not one evolves or in this case returns to deeper more primal states by just allowing or by striving?
Rodney: Unfortunately the answer to that question is yes. There are two schools of thought on this. One is that we "do" reverse breathing through intention. The other is that by holding the posture I described and relaxing, reverse breathing comes naturally. It is my experience that I have to focus on my posture and breathing to make it happen and then it takes over on its own. And it's kind of like stopping the internal dialog, If you put too much of your mind into it, you're not doing it anymore. So for me, eventually, reverse breathing happens without so much intention. But it has taken a bit of intentional practice to get to that point.
HTM: I am interested in hearing a description of the most heightened or advanced state you find yourself in due to these practices. In short, what is it that has you going back for more— bliss, enlightenment? Also, do you ever get to the point where you feel more as if you are being breathed rather than you doing the breathing?
Rodney: That may be a hard one to answer. I'm not sure if I know the right words. Bliss may be a good word here. There are two different states that I can personally identify. I would call them the meditative state and the Qigong state. The meditative state is what we achieve in meditation once we have settled down, stopped (or significantly slowed) the internal dialog, and the breathing has all but stopped.
At this point we feel existentially satisfied, at peace. In this moment we are not engaged with the wheel of Samsara. Some would say we are in the presence of God. I'm not really sure what bliss is, but it sounds like an apt word for this state. The Qigong state is similar, except that we also feel energized. There is a slight tension in the body. Tension is not really the word, but we are not so relaxed that we collapse. And we are not really tense. In Tai Chi we call it Sung.
Anyway, we are very aware of our bodies at this point, and aware of the energy, or Qi, that is flowing through our bodies. Because of the practice, we have the benefit of endorphins. So there is a sense of elation, much like a runner's high. I find the combination of these two states, meditative and Qigong, in standing meditation. I don't ever feel as if I'm being breathed. Rather, much like Zazen, I feel as if I'm not breathing at all.
HTM: You say that you feel that you are not breathing at all. Are you yet aware that there is breathing going on— that something is breathing— or is breath or any form of cyclic movement out of the picture entirely? I am also interested in, being that these states are achieved through posture and concentration, what part of this experience is retained and what other benefits do you experience when you are not in the midst of these practices?
Rodney: The thing about breathing is typical for all forms of meditation for me. The deeper I go into the meditative state, the shallower my breathing becomes. I am sure that there is some breathing going on, else it would be difficult to function. But the sensation is that it becomes so shallow that it is imperceptible. To get to this stage of meditation one must not focus on or think about any one thing too much. Attachment is attachment, whatever the discipline.
So sitting here in my analytical world of too much thinking, it would be hard to say what really is happening in that world. But my awareness is that little or no breathing is happening. It has always been my experience that some of that "bliss" from the meditative state creeps into my analytical, everyday world. For standing meditation that is even more so because it is a healing exercise as well. It works to integrate mind-body awareness. One of the things we try to be aware of while standing is physical stress and/or Qi blockages.
These are addressed through relaxation and attention to structural alignment. It is perceptible when these stresses are relieved, when the blockages are opened. This results in a new relationship with our bodies, much like we feel after a really good night's sleep or a chiropractic alignment. This new physical feeling stays with me. But there is also an atypical sense of mind/body awareness or maybe mind/body agreement that occurs because of this experience. That sense of agreement will also break into my normal day-to-day world at unexpected moments. It is a jolt of Qi; kind of like an unexpected runner's high, without the running.
HTM: I really only have one last question, and that is due to my posing the questions have you felt that the questions have directed you "away from" or "toward" what is your own personal reason or value achieved through meditation. To whatever degree this is the case, I'd like you to relate those areas that we were not able to cover due to this. In connection with this, do you have any personal goals connected with your meditative practices that are something clear enough to share?
Rodney: OK, I'll give this one a shot: When I first started meditating, some twenty two or so years ago I basically wanted to clear up the confusion— the confusion that sets in as soon as we leave the womb and start breathing air, and that is further stirred up as the people around us explain to us what life is and what it isn't. I am a son of the South, born and raised in the Bible belt and subjected to all the philosophy that entails. But I'm curious and an individualist. I question everything. So meditation was a tool to help understand the spiritual side of life and to break through conditioning and see the world differently. After a while I met with unexpected success.
Two decades later and I'm still seeking, but I feel I'm better grounded, not so influenced by the mass mythology. What I look for now is reassurance of that same success I experienced years ago. To use religious language I want to minimize the effect of Samsara; I want to realize the Tao; to be in the presence of the Holy Spirit; to step over into the Nagual; become one with the Universe; continue to heal my physical body and my spirit (which includes memories, conditioning, the effects of Karma, mental health, past hurts and mistakes). So, yes answering your questions has helped me to focus on my goals.
I am a writer. Writing is one of my best tools for learning. Explaining my practices helps me to put together in my head all the disparate pieces so that there is at least some method to the madness. And being a curious individualist I'm typically not satisfied with anyone else's explanations, philosophies, theologies. It seems I'm doomed to do everything my own way. And right now I consider spiritual growth to include the physical body. So Qigong is as equally important as meditation. In fact I consider it the same thing. I often just sit. But I would consider a 1-1/2 hour Taiji session to be a religious practice. My Taiji form is moving meditation. And some Qigong forms are spiritually moving in a way that I have never experienced with sitting meditation.
So, explicating standing meditation has helped me to better understand my practice. But the unexpected aspect of this interview was our discussion of Quaker practice. Perhaps because of the religious underpinning and the social taboo of discussing religion, I am generally very hesitant to discuss these things. And that is kind of odd for me, because I don't compartmentalize any of my spiritual practices. I believe the Divine is everywhere, everything is Divine. So taking out the trash is as sacramental as anything else for me. It has been reassuring for me to remind myself how important all my practices are, and the philosophies behind them.
I would say my present personal goals are non-attachment, simplicity, exceptional health, inner peace, transcendence, and the ability to share these as I attain them. I will approach these through the practices we discussed, plus listening— to others, to the Universe, to that small voice within, to wise words. I hope this last answer isn't too long and rambling. Sometimes it just keeps on coming.
I want to thank you for the opportunity to do this. This has been very rewarding for me. I hope I have been helpful to you. Feel free to reply with any follow-up, questions or concerns.
HTM: Your answer is not at all too long. Your passion is beautiful. You have got me excited about giving some of these body-oriented meditation practices a try. I wanted to point out a few things I noticed. One is the phrase you just used in reference to your writing and that is "sometimes it just keeps on coming". This is paradoxically beautiful and made me laugh. The second thing I would like to mention— and it is related to the first— is that although we are both quite passionate about the spiritual goodies on our "to do list" there are countless parables and wise sayings that insist we have all of these things now.
So my last question concerns this paradoxical problem of motive versus non-doing, passion versus acceptance, and believing we have work to do on ourselves when that work may be in truth as simple as letting go of the will and recognizing we are already where we think we want to be— that our efforts are the only thing that stand in our way. After all "sometimes is just keeps on coming".
Rodney: It is indeed a paradox. But I see it from an odd and perhaps practical point of view. Yes, the Kingdom is among us and all we have to do is recognize it, but how? I mean, we have teeth and hair and skin and appetites. But if we don't grow a garden or hunt animals or work and go to the market, we can't satisfy our appetites and we die. If we don't bath, brush our teeth, wash our hair, we may either lose them or abhor the condition they are in.
Likewise, we are all that we need— we just need to recognize that. But that requires some effort too, even if that effort is simply sitting. The Buddha said that life is suffering mainly because we get attached. Non-attachment is no more a natural state in this world than clean teeth are. We have to brush our Karma as well as our teeth. I agree that our efforts stand in our way. But it is our efforts to grow our gardens and raise our children and love our neighbors that get in our way.
These actions are necessary, but worldly, and people will steal from us, and tax us, and send our children to war, and pollute our environment, and fill our ears with propaganda. These are the things that stain our psyches and our bodies just as tea stains our teeth. Our practices help to wash us clean, to maintain us in body mind and spirit. Our practices are spiritual toothpaste if you will. So instead of our practices getting in the way, they get "us" out of the way of our natural blooming.
That blooming is always there, just waiting to happen much like the lilies out in my garden. They are waiting for the right conditions. I should till and fertilize the soil so that I get the best bloom possible. Likewise we do our spiritual practices to clean away the world so that we can be who we really are. But even with that, if we get attached to our efforts, we do indeed stand on our own way. So, it is still a paradox. But what else can you do?
HTM: I like your response. I get what you are saying. There is something that sticks with me on this subject and it has to do with squirrels and how they are compelled to hide nuts for later. What is it in their nature that recognizes this need and does something about it in the moment. Is it written into instinct and natural impulse to care for what needs to be cared for? If this is the case do we need to plan, or will arrive in our awareness without our day-planner? Independent of societal structures do you think human nature needs to be tended to or simply witnessed? In short, is it enough that you can't help but do what you do?
Rodney: I don't know. I think the human gift of abstract thought is both a blessing and a curse. I think Yogananda would say that we have the ability to arrive in our awareness without our day-planner. But our conditioning stands in the way. So, again, our practices work to clear the way for that possibility. Now, I am thinking as I write this (built-in dual processor) and I think that yes we have that ability. Again, drawing on Yogananda, we have the potential ability with our minds to do most anything. We can make our needs appear simply through the power of mind, and live a life of unbelievable synchronicity if we are properly attuned with the Universe.
Note, I said the potential. Making this an actuality is a matter of a lot of spiritual work, but I understand there have been plenty of people to demonstrate such mental/spiritual power. Of course this is taking this discussion to another level altogether— which is also extremely interesting to me, by the way. I guess at a base level we have the built-in nature that squirrels do, and have forgotten how to use it. At the same time we have the apparent supernatural potential that Yogananda and countless other Yogis talk about. Most of us are stuck somewhere in between.
HTM: I am so glad you acknowledged this. I can't tell you how important that is to me. For myself, in deep meditation I don't even feel particularly human. What I mean is I just feel more like life in general or refined, independent of biological specifics. If we follow this along, it makes sense that our identities have us viewing nature in a kind of clump state, where biology ends with my skin, takes a break and then starts up again with another person's skin... it just doesn't really cut the inner mustard.
So circumstances in our life may just be an extension of nature and biology, all abundantly cared for by and through relationship just like the cells in our bodies. Yes, it may well be another discussion. I really appreciate the time you have taken to do this interview, and I want to make sure readers are clear on what additional information they may find on your meditative practice on your site, as well as any other significant links of support. I would also like to know if you recommend any books on this form of meditation you practice.
Rodney: Thanks again Benjamin. This has been a very enlightening experience. I look forward to reading the post, and the rest of your new blog. Good luck with the rest of the project— Namaste.