Higan Mindfulness

Yesterday I woke up really early, before dawn, and went to practice Mindfulness Meditation at the Buddhist temple near my house.

I have been studying Mindfulness Meditation for about two years now.It was originally developed by Jon Kabbat Zinn at the Harvard Medical School for treating people with chronic diseases such as Cancer and chronic pain. Over the 30 years since it’s inception, its uses have expanded to include everything from severe mental disorders to stress, and where it seems to work best is in the realm of the mind. Thousands of studies have supported the case for it’s use in psychology to benefit society.

There are many kinds of meditation, including guided meditation and chanting. I have practiced those, too. Before coming to Japan, I lived in San Francisco and tasted a variety of different kinds. But my first experiences with it I have to credit to my mother, who would sit with me and guide me into it as a child. I remember many times finding the light in my heart and finding peace as well. She says I used to sit for about 45 minutes in silence by myself, and some mysterious things happening, like once I came back and said that “Grandma and Grandpa are on an airplane from Europe!” Which was true, and I had no way of knowing it because we hadn’t spoken to them and they hadn’t told us. I remember in my teens meditating on the moon, and that was when I started to see beautiful circles of colored light, kind of like what I’ve heard can be seen on the screen in biofeedback. That happens a lot.

But my recent studies in meditation haven’t been spiritual. They are more geared towards regulating my emotions. Life can get stressful, for everyone, and it has been proven to be most effective for that. That being said, it isn’t just for making you calm.

The way it works is you sit in a comfortable place, preferably not too comfortable so that you don’t go to sleep. You close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and then just start to watch. You watch how you breathe. You scan your body from the tip top of your head to the soles of your feet. You notice your breath. You feel yourself becoming calmer and calmer, relaxing your body when you feel tense places, allowing your body to adjust into a peaceful state. You watch your breath. Come back to it. You listen carefully to the things around you. Further and further away. Then come back to the breath.

Over the course of this, your mind will invariably wander, and that is wherein  the key lies. When you notice that your mind has wandered, you gently come back to the breathe. How it enters your body. How your stomach lifts. The tip of your nose where it comes in. And then your mind at some point will wander again. And you gently come back to the breath. You become mindful of your mind.

This is the key to mindfulness meditation in the school in which I practice. It begins with watching the wandering mind. But with time and practice, one begins to notice their thoughts. You can label them, and then begin to put thoughts, memories, emotions, urges, into ‘buckets’ and label them. You begin to notice what it is that preoccupies your mind and causes you stress.

And then here’s the real kicker. Once you get good at that, you start to notice it when you aren’t meditating. In the act of doing something out of character or experiencing something uncomfortable. You begin to realize how your reactions to life affect it. And that is something.

With this knowledge, you can move forward in life. I would say that most of us live life without really examining how we live or why we do things. We are creatures of habit. But once you begin to notice how you affect your own life, you begin making different decisions.

So, anyway, back to the temple. So I figured it was Sunday, and the old monk had invited me to listen to the ancient drumming and bells anytime I wanted… But he does it at 6:30AM. So I had woken up early on a Sunday, and decided to do the things that people do on Sundays when we want to feel particularly close to God, whatever we may deem them to be. I went to the temple and began to meditate. It was locked, and he was not up yet, so sat on the steps. At one point, he opened the door slightly and I greeted him, but stayed there watching the morning. He played the drums and bells. The little birds came out. The sky changed, exploded in a dawn of color and then mellowed into a gentle morning. The leaves of the trees swayed, and I listened.

The monk is pretty old, in his mid 80’s, but so full of life, very energetic, and loves to teach. He told me about the equinox holidays in Japan. The spring and fall equinoxes are days of rest in this country. He says that the days surrounding them are important, too. The three days before and the three days after have an important Zen Buddhist function, and the entirety of the week is referred to as Higan.

During the three days before the equinox, one should practice these three things: you should be generous with others, keep your promises, and strive to be patient and open-minded.

After the equinox, you should: gaman (refrain from excesses and persevere), meditate, and study the wisdom of the scriptures (here, he emphasized that it should not be ‘human’ wisdom, because humans are not pure of thought).

After he told me, I thought that maybe this is why many Japanese people consider patience, quiet listening, and perseverance to be essential elements of their culture.

Continue reading “Higan Mindfulness”

Deserts to Grasslands to Forest

The famous TED Talk by Alan Savoy about changing deserts to grasslands was first on my YouTube watchlist today. This was after I read this wonderful blog post by Sacred Sueños, a darme un the Andes where the forest was burnt down in 1999 to bring in cattle… And afterwards was used for corn and other crops, until the land was unusable anymore and it came into their hands.

The message is this:

After we have brought grazing animals to the land, whether it be desert land that is unusable, or grasslands, if we want it to become forest again or even crop land, we need another step.

We have to give it chance for succession if we want it to be productive again. We need to allow it to feed and for the soil to grow with mulches and leaves from trees and bushes, for the microbes and organisms to live within it.

It really makes sense. There is a wonderful video about a professor from the US going back to his native land in Africa, where the people were struggling to eat from the land, and creating a new biome with water and forest through agroforestry.

The traditional way of agriculture isn’t working for us. It will be our undoing, as it has been for so many cultures before ours. This is the power of history: let us learn from it and not make the same mistakes.

Crane’s Call

I learned a new Japanese idiom today. It is 鶴の一声. It means “the decision that has been made by the highest ranking official or person.” It sounds so stiff in English. The literal translation is, “the single call of a crane.”

So I decided to write a poem, a haiku.

美白氷河の鏡 鶴の一声 私らの血を呼ぶ。

The whitening glacial mirror

Crane’s solitary voice

Calls our blood.

People often don’t get my poems… They are too symbolic. I end up having to explain them… Can anyone guess the meaning?

The Tower

I found this postcard lying on the floor today… it became today’s esoteric reading. In this painting by the surrealist Spanish painter Remedios Varo, she captured part of the essence of what I believe is appropriate to the moment.

I think this painting was a twist on the tarot card “The Tower.” In the original image, people jump from a burning tower in terror as their world crumbles around them. It is one of the more dreaded cards in the deck, with a meaning of the death of something or extreme changes. A falling apart of what is known.

This painting is done with he same perspective, but with the tower having crumbled, its pieces strewn upon the earth. A flutist is, with music, magically encouraging their piecing back into place in the tower, pulling the world back together.

The Coronavirus pulled many people out of their towers, where they thought they were safe and had their lives. They suddenly tumbled down, their known existence in shambles, the tower of their lives ruined. But I see many creative people pulling themselves up with a musical force from the heart, communicating about the true necessities of the world and our own lives.

The Tower card of the tarot also symbolizes new beginnings. With the end of something comes the beginning of something new. Thus, in my readings I always bring this point up. The Tower card need not be feared, more it is a call to courage and determination in the face of great change.

This painting by Varo also says that what is needed is creativity and listening to the heart. We can all heal but we need to get creative and listen to what is needed calling from the dark recesses of our silent souls and the silent voice of this beautiful Earth that we live upon. True healing will come when we can face what we truly need to heal: ourselves and our home.