Friday, March 13, 2020

Ambient Meditative Music

I sometimes find it useful to listen to ambient music while meditating.  There's tons of this stuff out there, but I do have some possibly unique angles on this.

Here are some suggestions.  I'll finish with a pleasant piece, but I want to get into the notion of working with the unpleasant, the unsatisfactory.


Sister Waize


I stumbled onto Sister Waize (David Mekler) by way of a reddit post where he had made the Realignment Series available for free (at the time).  The so called "folding drone" music provides an interesting, constantly changing acoustic landscape with good ambient qualities.  But the soundscapes come with a bit of an edge - while pleasant and ambient at times, there are also some challenging, gritty, dissonant, industrial elements.  I find this combination particularly useful for working through challenging or unsatisfactory emotional material.  It tends to provide a support for feeling and releasing such material.  Out of the various Sister Waize albums, my first recommendation might be to try the Realignment Series as well as some of the others I've listed here:
  • 2010 - Torn Stone Fall
  • 2011 - A Dawning of Wonder
  • 2011 - Realignment Series Part I
  • 2011 - Realignment Series Part II
  • 2011 - Realignment Series Part III
  • 2012 - Perennial Suicide
Sister Waize's music is available at low cost through Bandcamp.


Jeffrey Thompson


Jeffrey Thompson has been a fixture of the new age meditative music scene for decades.  He has many titles that would be good for relaxing listening (I would recommend the Alpha Relaxation System, for example), but my suggestion for some music that provides a foundation for the emotional work mentioned above would be:
  •  1994 - Sri Yantra
As near as I can figure, Sri Yantra is out of print so I am making it available here:
Sri Yantra part 1
Sri Yantra part 2


Unknown


This track has very little in the way of dissonance, although it has some slightly eerie sounds and other parts that sound something like Tibetan chanting.  Generally this track is more pure relaxation.  It comes from a youtube video a number of years ago.  As I can no longer find any links or references to it, I'm making it available here, this is the original track name:

Out of Body Experience_ Low Bass OBE Meditation Trance _ Binaural Beats

(I'm neither endorsing nor not endorsing binaural beats or out of body experiences, I just really like the track.)  


Back to the idea of the less purely relaxing music, part of the game is that there are unpleasant phases.  The trick, as with everything, is to fully experience the unpleasantness, the fear, the angst, the anxiety, the nausea, the depression, allow it to be, surrender to it, and in that way become less attached to it, to let go of what can be let go of.

But it can be difficult to stay with such sensations.  We want to escape it, to divert ourselves, distract ourselves.  Meditation is a great opportunity to stay with what is actually happening.  But even then we might consciously or unconsciously divert ourselves away from dealing with some minor unpleasantness.

There is a sense here of exposing oneself to one's fears as a way of overcoming them, a prominent technique for dealing with phobias.

I find this kind of music to be mildly evocative of these unpleasant states and useful for keeping one's focus on these elements and thus ultimately working through them.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Recommended Books

Mindfulness
Direct Pointing/Non-duality - These books may help provide a sense of what enlightenment is about, and the direction to lean into.
About the characteristics of Enlightened Individuals and a little bit on how to get there.
  • The Finders by Jeffery Martin.  This book presents extensive research into over 1000 people considered to be enlightened.  We can quibble with some of the assumptions, or about the morality of selling a Finders Course, but at present there is nothing else really like this.  There is a free ebook on the associated publication page that summarizes the findings along with general recommendations for practice. 
After Enlightenment
  • The End of Your World by Adyashanti.  While this could be interesting even for seekers, this is probably most useful for those who have experienced a degree of awakening.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Big Experience


It is somewhat common for people relatively early on the path to have a BIG experience.  It doesn't have to play out that way, but then again, a big initial awakening or opening is not exactly a rare event.  What's going on?  What is that about?

The experience referred to here often has some kind of taste of complete freedom or liberation, possibly great joy, love, light, energy, etc.  In the Buddhist/Theravada progress of insight, this falls under the heading of what I simply call the "pleasant" phase (or the more arcane traditional label of the stage of knowledge of arising and passing) and manifests in a range of anywhere from pleasant to ecstatic.  It may happen as a result of meditation, most commonly during massed practice on an early retreat of some kind, or from using a psychedelic, or from great personal trauma, loss, or exhaustion.  Extremely rare individuals have stumbled into it by simply reading a sentence that gives them great insight.

The experience may be so "big" that a person may think they are enlightened.  Indeed, they may have gotten a kind of glimpse.  But as pure as that experience can be, it would generally be somewhat tainted by being viewed from substantially within the assumptions they currently hold.  And in virtually every case, the person will contract back to something like their former identity and beliefs.

To my way of thinking a couple of things are going on here.  On the one hand, in order to have a big experience, you need to establish through human culture a thorough indoctrination into attachment to language, concepts, beliefs, cultural assumptions, and identity.  Check.  Pretty much all people fall into this category.  But in terms of "big" I'd say plausibly the more attachment the better.  My speculation is that it might even "help" if the person is particularly rigid about some of these things, solidly married to their worldview, even neurotic about it.  Not that you'd want to cultivate that.

The other side of the coin is that you then need a very complete relaxation of all these things.  You need to stumble into a very "pure" consciousness that has dropped as many of these attachments, assumptions, beliefs and rigidities as possible.  A complete letting go into pure consciousness, the metaphorical original mind or natural mind.  Complete freedom.  A thoroughly different point of view.

It is the gulf or contrast or difference between these two extremes that creates the ground for a big experience.  The more radical the change in perspective, the bigger the relief, and the more dramatic it will be perceived.  For some people who already "get it", it might not be as big, it might not ever happen that way.  This would be like someone who has been meditating a little bit over time and slowly gets it, kind of like the apocryphal metaphor of boiling a frog.  But for someone who is more thoroughly entranced by thought-addicted identity views, the bigger the experience might be.  And again, pretty much everyone is substantially "attached", even if they've read a whole stack of Buddhist books.

The blue line in the graph above attempts to portray the theoretical progress over time of a typical person on the path.  Slow at first, then perhaps a tipping point such as stream entry, and a resulting acceleration, and then a slowing down again as one asymptotically approaches some ideal.  Actual progress would be much noisier and different.

The graph explains why the big experience, from a meditation perspective, is generally only possible, or more likely, earlier on or in the acceleration phase, because the gulf that creates the ground for the experience is vast at first, but as progress is made, the chance of experiencing something that big or  dramatic falls away.  As one moves towards the liberated perspective and leaves the attached perspective behind, any jumps into a very pure version of freedom seem more and more inconsequential, more ordinary.  After a certain point, it cannot be perceived as big or dramatic, this is pretty much the way things are perceived all the time.

Although this kind of experience can be repeated, for a typical meditator it is also very common to have just one big experience, and this is commonly the biggest, most dramatic experience of a meditator's life.  On the other hand, it is possible to repeatedly release into a very absolute experience, and some may have more of a predisposition to this kind of thing than others.  Psychedelics do help to reach this kind of absolute, but even here some degree of meditative practice makes a big difference.

At any rate, the experience often provides the motivation to get serious about a meditation practice and continue on the path.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Jud Brewer's Apps

I have been following Jud Brewer, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, ever since he put some of my meditation teachers in an fMRI machine and measured their brain activity.

I eventually learned that he has recently created a number of apps for
  • Anxiety - Unwinding Anxiety
  • Eating - Eat Right Now
  • Smoking - To Quit
A close friend began using the Unwinding Anxiety app and has gotten good results.  These are paid apps, but much of the material and process is covered in the first couple of months.  They introduce mindfulness as a part of understanding and becoming aware of the patterns involved in anxiety, overeating, and addiction.  The apps use daily videos combined with multiple random reminders a day to engage in a few seconds of mindfulness practice, in this case a basic form of noting.  They encourage a day by day, moment by moment approach that slowly builds - you can't jump ahead to future lessons.  Best of all, the apps have been refined with real world testing.

If you are dealing with some of the problems above, these apps could be helpful as well as being a painless way to start getting into mindfulness practice.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

A Simple Way to Start

For someone starting out or just willing to experiment, this is a series of four really simple meditation styles that progressively add structure.  The idea is to experiment with each for maybe 1 to 10 sessions and see what works for you, and to monitor whether increasing amounts of structure help you to be more mindful.

1. Doing Nothing


This is an unstructured practice of continuously "letting go", as I describe in The Easy Way - Do Nothing.  The practice is to just be, letting go of whatever, if anything, is coming up, and if you can't let go of something, let that be okay as well.  And if you lose mindfulness and come back, just go right back into letting go.  The practice is to let go, and continue letting go.  In essence to just stop.  Stop doing and just be.  Just this, nothing to do but just be, and always come back to just being.

When you realize you're "doing" something - thinking, inclining towards thinking, grasping at something or resisting something, just kind of stop and let go of as much of it as you can.  No need to grasp at anything or seek something better than this moment, just let everything be as it is.  During formal meditation practice you've set things up so that for a period of time you have nothing to do.  So do that - just be.  Relax.

This has always been at the core of any good meditation practice, but in the past I thought of it as secondary to the need to maintain continuous awareness, and I taught the letting go part after some awareness was established, but I'm beginning to think maybe people need to hear this first, so that this is always in the background from the beginning.

I would consider this to be an advanced style in the sense that many people will be spacing out left and right with this technique, and many may not get to what I would consider a full letting go, but I think this is nonetheless a worthwhile experiment - to begin to get it into the core of one's being that this is a valuable direction to lean in.

I wouldn't endlessly practice this as a standalone unless you are maintaining relatively continuous mindfulness.  Typically one or more of the following structured practices would be good to work on with an eye towards mastering the practice, i.e. putting in enough high quality practice until it becomes second nature.

2. Breath Awareness


The standard practice of following the breath.  The main recommendation, the trick if you will, is to follow the sensate experiences of the breath, feeling the breath as opposed to thinking about the breath.  The breath is always present and is used as a kind of anchor - when one loses awareness and returns to mindfulness, then return to simply experiencing the breath.  Within the mindfulness of breath awareness practice, remember to continue to practice letting go, just being.

3. Breath Counting


Same as breath awareness plus now we introduce counting the out-breaths.  Continue to feel the breath, but now we count the out-breaths up to 10, and then start over at 1.  The breath counting gives us a little extra to do, using up a little bit of mental bandwidth that we might otherwise use to wander.  Counting can become relatively automatic, so ratcheting the count back to 1 gives us a way to avoid that automaticity, and provides some feedback if we notice the count is over 10 (or if we lose the count).  Again, within the mindfulness of breath counting practice, continue to practice letting go, just being.

4. Breath Counting with Mantra


Same as breath counting plus now we introduce a mantra on the in-breath.  A mantra can be any word or phrase, but I'm going to suggest "awareness" as a possible mantra.  Although any word could be used, I recommend targeted words that are designed for whatever you feel you need for that particular meditation session.  Words like maybe "peace", "love", "stillness", "relaxation", etc.  However I might recommend that you pick a mantra for a particular session and stick with it.  In other words, don't give yourself the wiggle room to change the mantra in that session as that may tend to add extra thoughts and doubts.  Again, within the mindfulness of breath counting with mantra practice, continue to practice letting go, just being.

In Practice


As you experiment with these 4 simple techniques, notice whether or not they help to keep you mindful.  What works?  What percentage of the time are you actually mindful, aware of your awareness in meditation?  And within that, are you continuously relaxing, letting go?

Even with a relatively high degree of this kind of structure, there is plenty of room to space out.  A reasonably fit, relaxed person completes a breath about once every six seconds.  Even with a mantra on the in-breath and counting on the out-breath, there are a couple of seconds to spare on each movement of the breath, which is an eternity in terms of the mind's inclination to immediately go off and wander.  Sometimes you can notice that desire to go off and think.  But the point is to commit to these continuous practices, continually interrupt your mind's tendency to space out, and keep giving the mind experiences of continuous relaxed mindfulness.

Spending some time mastering one or more of the three structured practices might be a good way to develop a strong base before trying the noting practice I recommend in the series How To Meditate.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Concentration Practice - Analog Clock

One version of concentration style meditation is staring at a single object.  The practice is simple - place your attention on the object.  If you find that your attention wanders, return to the object.

In this case the object is the tip of the second hand of an analog clock, which provides at least slight novelty and continuity as the hand moves around the clock.

Here is one online clock:
https://analog.onlineclock.net/

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Easy Way - Do Nothing

For those who are hard on themselves, always pushing and pulling and striving, this may be the most important aspect of the teaching.  Which is, for perhaps the first time in your life,

just stop.

Just be.

Every impulse to go off and do something else, or distract oneself, just stop.  Witness the impulses arising, but don't take the bait.  Let those things be.  Let go.  There will be plenty of time for striving later if you want.  But for now, just relax and hang out right here, right now.  Stay sensate - continuously feel the body, aware of awareness.  Just an ordinary blob of flesh with nothing in particular to do, nowhere to go, no one to be.  If boredom arises, then experience that.  Don't push anything away with some need to distract, or to move to something "better".  Feel that need for distraction, that need for things to be some other way than they are, and return to letting everything just be as it is.  Stop fighting, stop pushing and pulling.  And then continually feel and experience the next sensation, and the next.
Strictly speaking, any effort we make is not good for our practice because it creates waves in the mind.  It is impossible, however, to attain absolute calmness of mind without effort.  We must make some effort, but we must forget ourselves in the effort we make.
- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

The essence of Zen is non-seeking ... 
"Only practice" is the best, but without any object, without trying to achieve anything.
- Taisen Deshimaru, The Ring of the Way
Both of these Zen master quotes illustrate the paradoxical nature of practice.  A kind of effort must be made to lean (or perhaps fall) in the direction of mindfulness, yet ultimately through practice this leaning becomes the natural default of the mind, at which point we can completely forget ourselves and the mind can relax to an unbelievable degree.  This is like the way a trained musician or athlete works hard over the years to ultimately forget themselves, to lose themselves in the moment when they play at the highest level.

A taste of this forgetting is available in any moment, and for some people this simple understanding may end up being their method.  To let go deeply, maybe for the first time, and simply do nothing but relax and be.

Stop leaving and you will arrive.
Stop searching and you will see.
Stop running away and you will be found.
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The various structured methods I recommend are paradoxically useful for keeping oneself aware enough to do this vital practice of letting go.  Some kind of effort in this way is often necessary to change, to retrain the mind, to unlearn what we have unconsciously learned.  Maintaining awareness is important.  But it is also important to understand the essence of the inward journey that needs to be happening amidst the awareness, that of relaxing and letting go, and letting everything be.

Those structured methods can become a kind of trap for people that are used to striving, if they are pushing themselves too hard and beating themselves up for lapses.  But the structure is often necessary, and it's a kind of balancing act to engage with enough effort to maintain a near-continuous awareness, while simultaneously letting go enough to be deeply relaxed.

Some guidelines on this kind of relaxation from Tibetan Buddhism, Six Words of Advice by Tilopa (McLeod translation).

  • Don’t recall - Let go of what has passed
  • Don’t imagine - Let go of what may come
  • Don’t think - Let go of what is happening now
  • Don’t examine - Don’t try to figure anything out
  • Don’t control - Don’t try to make anything happen
  • Rest - Relax, right now, and rest

Alternate translation by Watts & Wayman:

No thought, no reflection, no analysis,
No cultivation, no intention;
Let it settle itself

just be