I spent this past weekend at Wat Atammayantaram (Wat Atam for short) in Woodinville, WA, for a meditation retreat that was led by Ajahn Sudanto from the Pacific Hermitage (a branch monastery of Abhayagiri) in White Salmon, WA. While short relatively as far as retreats go, it was exactly what I needed. It’s been a few years since I’ve attended a meditation retreat at a Thai Buddhist monastery, and I forgot how much I enjoy spending time at monasteries and emulating the monastic life, even if for just a few days.
From mother cloud we come
born again we arrive
shaped by wind and sun and time
we are separate
Only one of countless multitudes
we call out to each other
and see reflected
on the surface
of our comrades
our own face.
Though falling is our nature
we fear the unknown end
taking comfort in
companionship we meet
the rocky ground.
To be free of endless cycles
of death and rude rebirth
we long for final home
we may merge
in endless sea.
Find more of my work at The Weaving
While tradition holds that meditation practice is usually observed in a quiet, peaceful room while sitting or reclining in one of a few specific positions, the benefits of meditation can be experienced while doing normal daily activities as well—even something as mundane as making coffee.
I’ve learned a lot about coffee over the years. I started off as a young adult with the normal grocery store coffee; Maxwell House or whatever was on sale. I would put the grounds in the pot, fill it with tap water, and push the button. It was completely brainless, and I wasn’t remotely aware of my actions while I was doing it. It became a habit, and there was no magic involved. Push button, receive drink. It didn’t taste very good.
I learned from a friend that premium coffee tastes better, so I started ordering mail-order coffee from a specialty roaster. It came in aluminum, vacuum-sealed bags. I did the same thing: Put the grounds in the pot, add water, push button. It tasted slightly better, but it still wasn’t very good.
I started to become more aware of my actions. Was I making sure the carafe was clean? Was I aware that the coffee maker was dirty and needed to be rinsed out? I opened my eyes and actually looked at the coffee maker. It was dirty. I spent some time reading instructions on how to clean it. Looking back, I now realize that this act of taking conscious effort to improve things was an early form of practice.
I still wasn’t pleased with the coffee and over the years became much more educated about the beans, the process, and the art of making coffee. I began to learn about how interconnected the flavor of the drink was with the place it was grown and the people who picked it and cleaned it and processed it. I spoke with growers in faraway lands. I learned to understand the full extent and the magic of how this simple daily pleasure was deeply intertwined with my persona and my daily happiness.
Today, I am very careful about making coffee and I enjoy making it for others. It’s ritualistic, calming, quiet, reflective, and rewarding—all hallmarks of a good meditative experience. I use a Hario ceramic funnel, a Hario kettle, Hario filters, and a Bodum burr grinder. I get my beans from the lovely Chazzano Coffee in Ferndale, Michigan, as Frank (the owner) is one of the most conscientious coffee roasters I’ve ever met.
Making the coffee
I check the cleanliness of my kettle and wipe it down if it’s dirty or clean it out if needed. I admire the craftsmanship of the metal, the shape, and the design. I appreciate the artistry and skill that went into crafting the kettle. I think about the person who designed it. It’s a Japanese kettle, so I think of how awesome it is that I live in a world where I can use this implement that was created a half a world away. Next, I begin to fill it. I contemplate the impurities that have made their way into the water and the journey the water takes to get to my tap. I am careful to filter the water to make the coffee as clean and bright as possible. I enjoy the sound of water pouring into the empty metal pot. I love staring at the cool, still water in the shiny metal kettle.
I put the kettle on the stove and go to the grinder. I smell the beans, remembering where I bought them and from where they came. I think about the growers, the sunlight, the coffee cherries drying, and the marvel of transportation that allows me to have these so soon after being picked. The roaster I go to has taken great care to roast them to perfection; I’ve seen him fret over these beans, smelling them, watching them, listening to them crack as they turn dark brown in the heat.
I grind them and take deep breaths as the beans are turned into coarse powder. The smell makes me feel at peace.
I take the filter and fold it carefully. I love the texture of the filter as my finger runs along it, making a tight crease. I take the ceramic funnel and marvel at the skill that must have been involved with designing it. It has spiral channels built into it and it’s almost a work of art on its own.
I put the filter in the funnel and run some filtered water over it to wet the filter, while waiting for the kettle to come to a boil. I fill the filter with grounds, taking care to gently tap the grinder cup to get the grounds out.
When the water is ready, I start the pour. The pour-over method should take three minutes if done properly. It’s very slow, contemplative, and you have to be aware of what you’re doing the entire time. You start with a slow pour in the center of the grounds, and since I’m using extremely fresh beans, the bloom that appears due to release of carbon dioxide is beautiful, and the smell is intoxicating. I count carefully and when thirty seconds have gone by, I begin slowly to swirl the kettle. to wet the rest of the grounds.
The kettle is designed to pour very slowly and consistently (thus the swan-like neck). This allows me to swirl the kettle in a spiral fashion, careful not to touch the sides of the filter, while ensuring that all the grounds continue to get evenly distributed without the funnel filling up too quickly, causing the grounds to stick to the side. It takes a great deal of attention and patience to get it right—just like meditation.
The joy of the experience
In the end, I am left with a wonderful, truly remarkable cup of coffee; more than drinking it myself, I love giving it to a friend and seeing the look on their face as they inhale the aroma and take their first sip.
It’s one of the most peaceful parts of my day, and it helped me realize that peace and contemplation can be found in everyday experiences. It doesn’t always have to be on the zafu or in the meditation room.
And it’s way harder than it seems. A couple of days ago MouthfulOfClay got me thinking about where my mind is at while I’m walking, so yesterday and today I really tried to become mindful of that. My mind wanders like mad during my walk; I tried several meditation objects; my breath, the sidewalk in front of me, my feet, the tapping of my walking stick, the scent of the air. Nothing really seemed any better or worse than any other, so I just stuck with what the old men used to tell me was best: focus on the breath.
It’s just like any exercise: I have to keep at it, practice a little bit every night, and eventually I’ll get good at it. I’m not gonna sweat it.
I walked a little over 3 miles tonight. I decided to start planning my routes beforehand and exploring streets and areas I’ve never been to before.
When you’re walking, you see things far differently than when you’re driving by. I’ve been driving by some of these areas for almost my entire life, and yet tonight, walking by them they all look completely different. I even saw a church that I had never known was there. What does that say about our mindfulness? I have most likely driven by this church hundreds of times in my life and yet I SAW it for the first time today. How many things like that are we missing on a daily basis?
Every tree is blooming; this is a beautiful time to be walking.
I was browsing around the web the other day and stumbled across this vblog review of the Rama Warrior mediation chair, so I thought I’d share it with you guys.
As a side note: I actually, through the miracle of interconnectedness, met Roxeanne Darling a few days after I saw that review. Being that she lives in Hawaii and I live in Michigan, the chances that we would meet randomly are extremely slim.
Or 100%, apparently, since it happened
While I am not a qualified teacher, or even an experienced meditator, I do not agree that the Buddha’s position was that one cannot actively develop mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. In fact, it seems to me that the Buddha did indeed encourage his followers to develop these things.
To begin with, the Buddha taught that whatever is impermanent is stressful, and whatever is stressful is not-self. The goal of Buddhism is to essentially take this [analytical] knowledge, along with a specific set of practices, as a stepping stone to what I can only describe as a profound psychological event in the mind. Nevertheless, that does not mean that I believe the teachings on not-self are understood to deny individuality (MN 22) as well as individual effort (attakara), far from it.
The irony of willpower is that it requires willpower to develop more of the same. The most obvious case in point is that meditation is an exercise of willpower that requires willpower. Willpower is what I’m missing most and it’s the thing I have the hardest time working on.
The most damning part is that willpower is something for which you can’t get a personal trainer, and which all the inspirational words in the world won’t change.
Step one is acceptance, right?
I’ve been practicing Kung Fu since October. My sifu is a bit rare, as I understand it, in that he absolutely insists that meditation be part of our practice, holds 5-minute meditations before every class, and has weekly 20-minute meditations on Thursday nights following a talk.
Out of my six months of practicing Kung Fu, I’d say I’ve actually done four months. Twice I allowed myself to become tied up with life and excuses and didn’t make it to the dojo for almost a month. This sort of behaviour is one of my stated reasons for starting to practice in the first place – I get ginned up for things and taper off; rinse and repeat.
Last week at meditation class, the topic was regularity and loyalty to practice. I felt the talk was directed at me specifically (30 or more people attend every week, so this is unlikely) and it started to dig at the root of my problem, I think.
This week I was thinking about how to start mediating on my own successfully. I’ve been a regular at the meditation class (when I’ve been active), but I’ve been wholly unsuccessful at meditating on my own. I’ve made half-hearted gambits, trying 3-minute meditations and such, but I could never continue with them. I’d do it once, then forget for several days or “not have time”, then take another stab, and then give up. I was preparing to go in this weekend and ask one of Sifu’s assistants for a really low-ball target that I could hit for meditation. Something just enough to get me started without giving up.
Then, last night, I once again felt like he had prepared a talk to address directly at me. The topic was meditation itself, which, oddly, isn’t much discussed during meditation class. He spent the duration talking about what a meditation schedule should consist of: short (3-5 min.), medium (20-30 min), and long (45+ min) meditations. Medium, he said, are the “bread and butter”: at least once a day EVERY DAY, preferably two; morning is the best time if you can only do one. The short ones are for interspersing throughout your day, maybe three times, at moments when you need it: closing your eyes while waiting in line, sitting in a back room at work, or even locking yourself in a restroom stall. The long meditations are for once a quarter, once a month, or once a week; whatever you can do.
And he was absolutely serious. Dead serious. A “I better not ask for a low-ball from anyone this weekend because holy crap he just told me what’s up” serious. And he drove home the idea of the long meditations being an endurance test for your will power. Of course, I knew that just a “medium” meditation would be such a test for me.
I was up too late last night; I had put off a trip to the grocery store and went to the 24-hour store around 11:30pm, when I should’ve been heading for bed. I knew I would have trouble getting up, but I got it in my head I was going to meditate in the morning. This morning, I sat up with the first noise of my alarm clock and was ready. As someone who typically hits the snooze 5 times, that was a novelty.
I reset the alarm for 20 minutes, and sat.
Then I was too warm.
My sleeves were uncomfortable.
I was too warm again.
My legs were in a bad position.
Back wasn’t straight.
Back started getting really tired.
Then I wanted to jump up and run from the room. I wanted to stop SO BADLY. I had things to do. I WANTED TO YELL and jump up and say “good enough”. I was positively bursting to get up. BURSTING. My mind was screaming to let it go. Screaming. This never happens during a group meditation, but I’m surprised it took even this long to happen on my own – usually I can’t make 5 minutes!
But this time I sat some more. I refused to get up.
Then my legs started to go to sleep so I moved them.
Then I could barely keep my back straight it was so tired, so I quietly scooted back a few inches to the wall.
My mind calmed a little.
And then the alarm went off. I opened my eyes and wanted to hit the snooze alarm so I could meditate longer, but I had to get ready for work!
I find this to be a pattern: if I can stick with it long enough, suddenly it becomes a positive thing. I found myself wishing on Thursday night that I hadn’t missed my opportunity to go to class on Wednesday because now I just plain missed it. Sifu said that’s when you know you’re doing something right: you stop having to meditate and start wanting to meditate. I’m almost there for Kung Fu, but I’m nowhere near it for meditation. I hope I can make it there, though.
When I decided to meditate in the morning, I knew it I needed to do it the next day too. And the next. And keep going… forever. Forever is a long time, but I think that’s the decision I need to keep in mind. I’m not doing it “tomorrow”. I’m doing it. Maybe that’s where I’ve been falling short.