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Thursday, October 31, 2013

How Not to Fade ... er, Meditate

In Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book," Bod is a young (human) boy being raised by ghosts. His education includes training in the art of Fading, which sounds remarkably like a lot of meditation instruction I've received.

He took a deep breath, and did his best, squinching up his eyes and trying to fade away.
Mr. Pennyworth was not impressed.
"Pah, that's not the kind of thing. Not the kind of thing at all. ... Try again."
Bod tried harder.
"You're as plain as the nose on your face," said Mr. Pennyworth. "And you nose is remarkably obvious. As is the rest of your face, young man. As are you. For the sake of all that is holy, empty your mind. Now. You are an empty alleyway. You are a vacant doorway. You are nothing."
... Bod tried again. He closed his eyes and imagined himself fading into the stained stonework of the mausoleum wall, becoming a shadow on the night and nothing more. He sneezed.
"Dreadful," said Mr. Pennyworth.

Poor Bod. When I was learning to meditate, I went to "learn to meditate" sessions at a yoga center where I'd gone mainly to do yoga. And I was told, over and over, to empty my mind. I had as much luck with that as Bod did with fading. Minds don't empty. Minds think. But meditation is still possible.


Notice the thoughts. Don't try to force them to stay down or push them away or feel bad because they're there. Just notice them as they arise and as they pass. Your mind has enough space to hold thoughts without getting tangled up in them.

Bod (was) standing in the middle of the room with his eyes tightly closed and his fists clenched and his face all screwed up as if he had a toothache, almost purple from holding his breath.
"What you a-doin' of now?" she asked.
He opened his eyes and relaxed. "Trying to Fade," he said.
Liza sniffed. "Try again," she said.
He did, holding his breath even longer this time.
"Stop that," she told him. "Or you'll pop."

I've seen people like that in the meditation class I lead. Shoulders hunched. Eyes scrunched. Jaw clenched. Determined. But there's no space to meditate. It takes something in between -- not too tight and not too loose, as the Buddha famously said. Balanced.

"What do you do when you try to Fade?" 
"What Mr. Pennyworth told me. 'I am an empty doorway. I am a vacant alley, I am nothing. ...' But it never works."
"It's because you're alive," said Liza with a sniff.

You're alive, and you have a curious mind that wired and trained to think. That's a precious thing. But you don't have to follow every thought to its logical conclusion or emotional resolution. You can rest, with thoughts in your head like bats in the evening sky, swooping past but never touching down.

Happy Halloween!