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The Art of Meditation - Seasonal Tea Club Winter 2021 (part 1)

The Art of Meditation - Seasonal Tea Club Winter 2021 (part 1)

“The principle of nowness is very important to any effort to establish an enlightened society. You may wonder what the best approach is to helping society and how you can know that what you are doing is authentic and good. The only answer is nowness. The way to relax, or rest the mind in nowness, is through the practice of meditation. In meditation you take an unbiased approach. You let things be as they are, without judgement, and in that way you yourself learn to be.”

– Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

A pristine white blanket of heavy snow covers the forest floor, hiding the gold, yellow, and brown decay of Autumn. The ascending call of the blackbilled magpie pierces the stillness of the cold air, while many other birds migrate south to warmer locations. The water element dominates this time of the year, frozen in the dangling icicles of the leafless trees, the layer of ice along the surfaces of the waterways, the gathering of dark clouds around the mountain peaks, the visible breath of animals preparing for hibernation. Last week we experienced our first big storm, twenty inches of fresh snow throughout the valley. The seasonal shifts are clearly marked in this high-altitude part of the world, which makes it easier to observe the lifestyle changes appropriate to “living seasonally.” Naturally, our way of life shifts towards stillness, meditation, slower movement practices, longer tea sessions with boiled or sidehandle bowl tea, grounding and kidney-nourishing foods, warmer clothes, less social activity, and greater emphasis on introspection, reflection, and embrace of the deep unknown. Here in the mountains of Southern Colorado, we enjoy the transition to darker, warming, and meditative teas during this time of the year.

The Way of Tea is based on nature, and nature sustains a state of continuous dynamic transformation. Therefore, the Way of Tea naturally resists prescriptions and formulas. Any “belief system” that rigidifies into strict dogma becomes the skeleton of a teaching. As a dead skeleton, it can no longer meet the dynamic needs and uniqueness of every person who approaches. Just as water freezes in the winter, it will thaw in the spring. With this way, we have methods and forms, all of which serve their purpose. Yet, by observing the forms closely, by drinking attentively, we come to realize that each tea session is utterly unique and in fact, we are unique within each tea session. Ice to water, water to vapor.  Even though we are attempting to perform the same action every day, the method is slightly different each time we drink tea. Our task then is simply to notice, to observe the changes, to be with the tea session at hand. We notice the change in light from the Autumn to Winter as it falls on the table or illuminates the dancing steam from the cup. The clink of the teapot against the cup as our attention lapses- brings us back to the practice, to the breath, to the Way of Tea. 

We’ve explored the six areas of the Way of Tea that I find most interesting through previous tea clubs (available on the Living Tea Blog). The six categories, in order from the inner to outermost, are: Meditation, Virtue, Vitality, Tradition, Method, and Community. Recently, I awoke in the middle of the night with a realization: each of these categories corresponds well with a specific season and element. For example, Autumn corresponds to the Metal element, symbolized by the metal tools used in the harvest, the cold and condensed precious metals of the earth, and the time of year for storage and containment. This inward movement of Autumn also corresponds to the mind and its ability to “harvest” information, to cut, discern, dissect and discriminate. This is the perfect time of year to study Method: the Methods of tea processing and tea brewing, the Methods of Meditation, cultivating Vitality, nourishing Virtue, following Tradition and supporting Community. As promised in the Autumn tea club, this winter tea club will look at the method of processing Puerh tea, but first let’s look at the method of meditation along with some notes to hopefully help you with your practice. 

The Art of Meditation 

Meditation is so important in modern life because it helps us navigate our internal lives, as well as an increasingly complex, cluttered, noisy external world. It’s the most effective way to address the source of our dissatisfaction, frustration and suffering - the Mind. If that were the final word, then it might seem like a glum topic. Luckily however, there’s another side of it, which is that the root of our happiness is also in the Mind. The sage Shantideva in Bodhicaryavatara, speaks on the topic of suffering. He says that human suffering can be likened to walking on the earth wherein touching the ground hurts your feet. In an effort to avoid suffering, the pain from touching the ground, we believe the solution is to cover the earth with hides of leather rather than the simpler solution, which is to wrap our feet with leather. Trying to solve our discontents with the outer world creates never-ending problem. By attempting to change the outer circumstances, we engage in a permanent fight with reality that can’t be won. Through meditation we can achieve something revolutionary by alleviating the suffering that we falsely believe comes from the outside. Working with our minds is the most powerful way to achieve consistent, lasting happiness, within the world that we live. 

Here are some recommendations to start or strengthen your meditation practice:

One, sit at the same time everyday. Regardless of the time I go to bed, I make an effort to get up at seven every morning, splash some cold water in my face and to meditate while my tea water heats up. A beginning practices should be at least fifteen minutes, extending all the way to one hour. Discipline is only difficult until it becomes a habit. With time and practice, meditation becomes a great joy in life. Most meditators with whom I’ve spoken confirm that it’s important to sit before you get into the activities of the day. The mind is still quiet and there are less distractions in the practice. The intuition and energy of the night is still available. 

Two, posture is extremely important. In many Zen texts there’s an emphasis that posture and the meditation are one in the same. We should have a nice, stable base, whether sitting on a small pillow or chair. I personally prefer the Burmese style of sitting with both shins flat on the ground, and my butt on a small pillow or Zafu. One should role forward on one’s tailbone so that the hips are horizontal, which also allows the spine to be straight. The shoulders should be relaxed and rolled back and down. Generally, I sit with my hands resting in in my lap in the Dhyana mudra (the dominant hand is on the bottom with the non-dominant hand resting inside thumb tips gently touching in a vertical position). The chin should be slightly tucked. The tip of the tongue touching the spot where the upper palate meets the teeth. The jaw, mouth and eyes are relaxed. Maintaining this posture requires and facilitates great attention and awareness in the present moment. One of my teachers described this as an attention so strong that if somebody touched you, you’d give off sparks.

Three, the way we do anything is the way we do everything. Pema Chodron describes the posture in meditation as: “An open heart and strong back. Actually, it’s a gesture of enormous bravery to sit up when you find yourself slumping, when you find yourself closing down!” With time, you can observe that your meditation correlates to your life, in general. The way you sit, the distractions and excuses you have, are the same as what you do in daily life. Through meditation, you change these habits, which will change the rest of your life. First, you must see the habits. If you travel upstream in a rushing river to the spring, and you move one stone, you transform the entire course of the river.

Four, when you begin a meditation practice, you gather the entirety of yourself to the moment, to the practice. You must locate and stabilize the mind at the beginning of the practice. When you first sit, spend some time observing the thoughts in the mind and the general nature of those thoughts. Are they fast or slow, rushed or scattered, fixated and discursive? Just observe without judgement, the state of the mind. Also, take stock of the emotional state that you find yourself in. Finally, you can slowly scan through the whole body noticing areas of tightness, tension or contraction. Breath and relax into the moment. I often find that my shoulders drop after a few minutes of meditating. Tension I didn’t even know was there begins to release. When working with thoughts and emotions, it is important to develop the ability to observe without attachment or judgement. In the words of Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche, “The towns and countryside that the traveler sees through a train window do not slow down the train. Nor does the train affect them. Neither disturbs the other. This is how you should see the thoughts that pass through your mind when you meditate.”

Five, many meditators find it helpful to have preliminary practices to set the tone or create the space for meditation. As meditation teacher Martin Faulks points out, tools can greatly facilitate meditation, such as rubbing a mala together between the hands, lighting a candle in your meditation space, putting on a special shirt you only wear for meditation, lighting incense, chanting a mantra, breathing and stretching. Doing these preliminary practices can help one shift into the meditative practice. With time, these gestures evoke a feeling of groundedness, concentration, peacefulness and connection to one’s inner life. While I used to drink tea prior to meditation, I now choose to drink it after because I don’t want any distractions to get in front of the meditation practice. Finally, by knowing that after the sit I’ll be able to enjoy some nice tea along with writing or reading, it helps me to let go of anything outside of the practice. I don’t need to see past the end of the practice. I know that a warm cup of tea is waiting for me, but for now it is time to just sit and let go of expectation. For now, my only job is to cultivate awareness of the present moment. 

Six, on days when the mind is particularly distracted or busy, a mala can come in handy. At the end of every exhalation, you move another bead. A traditional mala (like the ones we carry at Living Tea) has 108 beads, which takes 11-12 minutes to work through. This makes it a perfect meditation tool. I prefer a natural method of time-keeping, rather than a digital one. In fact, I find it very helpful to keep the meditation and tea space technology-free. The addictive, compulsive tendency towards “browsing” apps or indulging in google searches can fully detour one’s meditation and tea practice. Keeping a special corner of the house technology-free helps to balance the overwhelming modern reliance on technology for nearly everything. 

Seven, once you’ve taken some time to observe and settle the thoughts and the emotions, you can scan the body. The idea is to place your mind on each body part so that you get a sense of how it feels in the present moment. I like to follow the flow of the meridians, which is how the energy flows through the body. You can follow this flow with us live in our weekly meditations on the website. Starting at the base of the feet, one observes any sensations, whether they be aliveness, tingling, hot, cold, numbness, etc and from there move through the inner legs, groin, belly, chest, down the inside of the arms, up the outside of the arms, into the front of the neck, the face, the scalp, the back of the head, down the back, down the buttocks, down the back of the legs, arriving again at the base of the feet. It is then beneficial to spend some time sitting with an awareness of the entire body, just observing sensations. The body does not exist in the future or the past, and thus is a powerful conduit into the present moment. 

Eight, the breath and the heartbeat are two constants throughout your life. By listening to the breath you can significantly influence the way you respond to each moment of your life, including influence over your nervous system, your heartbeat, your psychological and emotional reactions to situations. In this way, the breath is the most profound tool you have in liberating your mind from the habitual reactions to the inevitable vicissitudes of life. For many long-time meditators, the breath is the beginning and the end of all meditation practice, meaning that they use only the sensation of the breath entering and exiting the nostrils as the object of attention in meditation. More difficult practices, like Zazen or Shikantaza, which require vacancy of thought or pure observation, benefit by first learning to stabilize the mind on the breath. My recommendation for people just beginning meditation is to focus at least the first year of practice on developing an intimacy with the observation of the breath. If you can take ten days to attend a Vipassana meditation course, you can become deeply established in the practice of awareness of respiration or anapana-sati. Alternatively, you might consider attending our weekly virtual meditations or coming to our seasonal tea and meditation retreats in Telluride, Colorado.

We hope these suggestions help you in your practice and we wish you consistency, joy and depth in your practice as we move into the the quieter months of the year, ideal for meditation.

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