There are millions of writings, of one kind or another, about meditation, of one kind or another. So my challenge here is to say something fresh enough that it will encourage those among you who haven’t tried meditation to do so.
The title of this piece is deliberately misleading. If you think I’m going to show how deep meditation put me in a “zone” so that I quickly mastered windsurfing, you are sorely mistaken. I will find an important connection between sail boarding and meditating, but one of a subtler nature.
My first experience with a sail board was on Dorena Lake near Cottage Grove, Oregon, at Baker Bay County Park. I was able rent a genuine Windsurfer there in spite of never having sailed such before. This was back in the 1980’s when the very idea of sailing on a board was new and the board sailing craze had barely started. Back then people were not as fussy as now about renting such equipment to total novices. I figured that although I had never sailed a board before, I shouldn’t really have much difficulty. I had surfed respectable southshore summer storm surf at Waikiki and had sailed enough in small boats that I felt confident that I could manage a Windsurfer with only minor difficulties. I had only recently read about this brand new way of sailing and was immediately filled with excitement about the simplicity and freedom of roaming on a board, standing and without paddling. True, there was no rudder for steering on a sail board, but I had read about and understood how one steers without a rudder. If one holds the sail so that most of the sail area is in front of the mast as it pivots on the board, the wind will turn the board down wind. Simply move the sail area back, behind the mast to turn into the wind. To keep moving straight ahead find a judicious balance so that there are equal areas before and behind the mast while making minor adjustments to correct one’s course. What could be simpler? Well, the quote falsely attributed to Yogi Berra is extremely pertinent here. “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
Out on the lake it was breezy, but not too breezy. Conditions were perfect for learning to windsurf, but there were far too many things to keep track of at once. The board was tippy, but not as tippy as my surf board was at Waikiki. The Waikiki board was a sizable board referred to as a “tanker” by the local kids and I could actually stand on it when it wasn’t on a wave. One afternoon when the waves were small and barely surfable, I enjoyed standing on it while the trade winds on my back blew me out to sea where I could catch one of the small waves and ride back in. However, on my Waikiki board there was no mast with flapping sail and I only needed to balance without also trying to think about moving a sail in a wind that would gust, ebb and even change direction. On Dorena I tried to sail up wind by moving the sail back, and, sure enough the board would turn into the wind. And keep turning until I was “in irons”, directly into the wind. At which point I would fall into the water, clamber back on the board, stand up, and carefully lift the clumsy sail out of the water by the up-haul. Then as I pulled the sail into position, the wind would do something funny and I would be back in the water again. After two hours and much effort I was about two hundred yards downwind from where I started, gave up, and swam the board with its sail dragging in the water back to where I started.
As the summer wore on I kept trying to sail and gradually learned how. It was a matter of constant thought, however. Haul the sail up out of the water, while leaning against its weight with up-haul in both hands. Swing the mast and hanging sail forward or back to get the board’s length across the wind. Then keeping balance, reach across and grab the boom using the hand on the side of the body towards the bow. (At first this seems somewhat counterintuitive.) Pull the mast and sail towards the front of the board, then grab the boom with the other hand and trim the sail position as the board starts moving. Try not to lose balance. Then shakily enjoy sailing with one’s butt hanging out to windward until a gust makes one let go of the boom or a sudden drop in the wind ends the support of the sail and one falls backwards into the water.
Winter came and went and with the new summer it was time to try windsurfing again. As I went out on the board I was somewhat anxious. Could I remember all the stuff detailed in the last paragraph? I tried to think as I pulled up the sail. Then miracle. My hand reached across grabbing the boom, forward pull, other hand on boom and I sailed away. Over the winter my muscles and nervous system had remembered and my brain didn’t need to think or remember. This experience was startling because so unexpected. Ordinarily when one learns a skill the body learning is gradual and not nearly as intense and concentrated as when learning to windsurf. Nor is there usually a long interruption, so that the body learning is not dramatically noticeable. Nevertheless in learning any skill, bodily learning though it may not be noticeable, is very real and, I think, very important particularly when it comes to meditation.
Meditation with its emphasis on breathing, lungs and brain involves biological systems that have been under evolutionary pressures for some 300 million years or so, give or take a few million. Not surprisingly we are seldom consciously aware of what goes on as we breathe unless something is seriously wrong with us or we’re climbing at high altitude. With meditation, however, we are not only consciously controlling our breathing but simultaneously hoping that the breathing will help us to empty our mind of thought while keeping it clear and aware. Though the complexity of this task seems less than that of windsurfing, when one gives it some thought, one realizes that there is not simply muscle control involved, but also control of one’s consciousness as well. Ordinarily we are thinking about SOMETHING, or we day dream. In any case our minds are full of thought. Outside of meditation the closest one comes to an empty, aware mind is in an athletic situation – waiting for a serve in tennis or volleyball, or for the “hike” in football or a pitch in baseball. When we are not in athletic anticipation, this empty minded state is highly unnatural and only partially under conscious control. Proper breathing helps.
I first became aware of the idea of deliberate controlled breathing when I discovered in a box of abandoned books The Hindu Yoga Science of Breath. This was during the war, probably in 1944 when Kaiahulu, a vacation house for Castle and Cook employees, was released by the military from its use as an R and R facility. What such a book was doing there I could hardly imagine. I was fifteen. In the book I read of various yoga positions and kinds of breathing, of which the “complete breath” seems to have worked best when many years later I tried to meditate. At the time I had to try the various kinds of breathing and some of the yoga positions, including the improbable full lotus position in which one sits cross legged on the ground with one’s ankles atop opposite thighs. Probably this trial occurred a couple of years after I found the book at a time when I had taken up competitive swimming and was “loose as a goose” so to speak. In a couple of days I did it. Then in a few more days it was easy. And then I forgot it.
After reading about Zen I tried to practice meditation. Although sitting in the full lotus position while breathing in a regular in and out is the supposedly the gold standard, I could no longer come even close to the full lotus so sat simply with my legs crossed and breathed the “complete breath”. To do the complete breath one first notes that by lowering one’s diaphragm one can breathe into the bottom part of one’s lungs behind one’s stomach. Then note that by expanding one’s chest one can fill one’s lungs behind one’s chest. With the complete breath one starts by breathing into the lower lungs behind one’s stomach and then into the upper lungs. This is done in one smooth motion until one’s lungs are full. One stops for an instant and then exhales smoothly and regularly until the lungs are empty. One can imagine while inhaling that a mysterious energy fluid, the Hindu’s call prana, is coming in from the lungs, then up into one’s head all the way to its back leaving a delicious feeling in one’s head as one exhales. As a skeptical physicist I actually believe in prana about as much as I believe in phlogiston or the luminiferous ether, substances which turned out to be fictitious. So I don’t think one should believe in prana either, just experience a feeling as if there were such a thing. Although many people claim that breathing through one’s mouth is the correct way while meditating, I think that breathing through the nose is OK if one’s nose is clear. In my experience one is more likely to get the prana effect doing so. While in a skeptical mood, I’ll also claim that the only reason the full lotus is considered the proper position for meditation is because it enables one to have a straight back and fully fill the lungs. If one sits or stands with good posture, “firm like a mountain”, as one authority puts it, that works just fine in my experience. If fact I just sat straight upright in a chair the last time I did meditation over an extended period. I note however, that when my aunt who was interested in Zen went to Japan, she found that no one would compromise in the slightest their insistence on the full lotus position which for her was impossible because of her age and the stiffness of her joints.
Of course the real catch about meditation is not matters of position and breathing, but settling one’s mind into a blank, empty, alertness, wide awake, eyes open, no thoughts. As a beginner or even a fairly long time practitioner one finds that the clear mind is quickly invaded by thoughts. The proper reaction to this is not to get upset. Clear one’s mind if possible, and keep on going. In the beginning it helps to count one’s breaths – one, two, three, up to ten. Then start over. One can count breaths in and out, just in, or just out. I can’t see that it much matters though at first the in and out seems to work best. Getting back to the example of my first windsurfing experience, the lesson is not to keep going too long when things aren’t working. Then I kept going for two hours because I was sort of having fun. It is clear that another two hours would have been totally exhausting and worthless. With meditation, ten minutes at first is definitely enough. In fact if time is short, ten minutes is always enough to get the practice that leads in the long run to the automatic muscle, nerve, and mind learning.
For those of us living in modern times, with job, family, and countless activities, there is a real question about finding the time to meditate. My own experience is that I would go for years at a time without practicing meditation and then come back to it for several months. More recently the automatic learning entailed by this on and off practice over the years has kicked in and I’ve been able to settle in pretty well to clearing my mind while simply walking around during odd moments when there are no immediate demands on my attention. This practice brings to mind a Russian Orthodox practice called “the prayer of the heart”. Monks who engaged in this practice would constantly pray all day long as they went about their business at the monastery or their begging in the outside community. I’m not at all recommending anything as draconian as the prayer of the heart. However, simply hearing about this practice suggests that an emphasis of setting aside a time apart from the world of daily life in which one practices meditation is unduly limiting. One does the daily meditation so that the complete breath becomes ingrained. Then when one has a spare moment or if one feels unduly stressed start the breathing and clear the mind. Meditation then is not a thing apart but a continuing practice to be engaged in at any time one finds or needs a moment for relaxation in the middle of life.
A final question: why bother with meditation? What good is it? Is the trouble one goes to worth the result? Those who practice meditation note that it does tend to relieve stress and make one’s life go easier. That is certainly my experience. Besides being a stress reliever, meditation does seem to intensify the experience when one has a realization or a moment of insight. In addition, if one thinks that possibly, there is such a thing as a deep spiritual understanding, meditation is a practice that likely helps bring that understanding about.