My Contemplative Practice

One runs the risk of sounding self-indulgent and patronizing in discussing the manner in which one prays, meditates, or gets their contemplative groove on. After all, there is not absoluate need to do any of these in order to be a healthy human, functioning member of society, compassionate soul, or enlightened being. The mere talking about meditation carries the possible implication of dogmatic insistence that everybody must meditate, or that the writer is just so great to meditate. It can have the whiffs of pretention. Naturally such dogma or showiness is hogwash, mainly because meditation is not an end state but rather more akin to taking a private bath—it is one way to refresh and renew, but not the only way. Cleanliness is arrived through several paths.

Then there is the issue that "meditation" implies something like "sitting silently, on a pillow or blanket." I think this is too narrow a view. I prefer a broader definition—something like "focused reflection"—that can include sitting, but is not limited by that practice. Writing can be a meditation. Reading can be, too, as can conversation, sex, singing, gardening, dancing, work, cooking, art-making, as well as enjoying someone else's art. Parenthood requires an enormous amount of selfless, focused concentration—coax a fitfull baby to sleep and you'll know what I mean. Anything can be approached with a "contemplative attitude".

I've written elsewhere that I adhere to a "1% Rule" for silent medtation. I believe that about 1% of one's waking hours ought be devoted to silent meditation. That amounts to around 10-15 minutes a day. As a suggestion (not a fiat), this number can be increased of course if one wants. But because I believe that so many other activities can be approached as a meditation, 10-15 minutes of silent sitting (practiced daily over several years) is enough, in my experience, to trigger in one's awareness the recognition a deep sense of contemplative life, a sense that can be brought into anything one does.

This is why the Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote that one can stop silently meditating when one can stabilize that "meditative state of mind" in everyday life. In his The Music of Life (p. 144), he says, "If there is a meditative person, he has learned to use that silence naturally in everyday life. The one who has learned silence in everyday life has already learned to meditate." And at that point of development, it is far easier to see any activity as a kind of meditation, or contemplative act, for the meditative state of mind stably undergirds everything one does. But if you can focus while performing any activity (and even watch yourself focusing during it) then just that is what I mean by a contemplative attitude.

So with all that said, I would like to detail what I do in my own contemplative practice (or 'sadhana', or 'module'). I focus on three stages—bare attention, Tone Yoga, and witness inquiry. I start first thing in the morning and proceed in the order described below.

As I wake up, get out of bed, and drag a comb across my head, I amble over to my sitting place in our living room. I kneel on a blanket, do a simple stretch to loosen my shoulders (mine tend to be tight) and then proceed with the meditation, of the 'bare attention' variety.

This means I watch my thoughts, my sense perceptions, and in general, I watch the combustible engine that is my mind. Its machinations, like all minds, are endless, but I find that in a couple minutes or so I can reach a place of (more or less) constant attention to whatever arises. This first area serves as a preparation for the rest of the session. I don't hope for anything except a degree of focus, calm, and openness. Think of it as a 'warm-up stretch', before one would start an athletic activity.

The next part of my practice is musical. I use my guitar, and I sing. Two of my low guitar strings are tuned to a perfect fifth, and I strum these as a drone (ala a Hindustani tamboura). First I listen—sometimes for as long as 10 or 15 minutes—to the drone, to hear both the fundamental tone, and then to discern the more subtle overtones (or harmonics) perceivable from any plucked string.

After this crucial step of listening, only then do I start to sing. I start by singing in unison with the lowest note plucked on my guitar (which these days is low E). So I inhale deep, pluck the string, then sing the unison note for the entirety of my full breath. I repeat many times. I sing this long tone over a single drone note. The pitch of my voice will fluctuate slightly (just above, then just below the drone) and I notice these fluctuations, and make slight adjustments that seek a true unison. This is very focused, listening closely to both the drone and my voice, as if both swimming in a sea and standing on the shore at the same time.

Sometimes the unison singing comprises this entire second stage. But when it doesn't, I will then move on to sing other notes over the drone: such as a perfect fifth, major third, fourth, and so on. I sing open-throated, full, and I use Hindustani solfege syllables, called sargam—sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa. I sing each of these intervals, seeking an encounter with each. I track the number of breath-repetitions on my left hand fingers (my right hand plucks the guitar on my lap).

Sometimes this focus on intervals comprises this second stage, but sometimes I go further (I allow this decision to be made in the moment of each session—music is rightly an organic and chaotic art.) So then I sing a scale, in common Western scales as well as non-Western scales. A degree of music theory is required to have a full palette of scales (or modes) at one's disposal, but not too much theory. I sing ascending and then descending through the scale, still over the drone, and when I am comfortable with each of the pitches (that they are in tune, and feel in tune), then I improvise in that scale, over the drone, in a method much like an Indian vocal raga—freely, without thought of chord progression, but rather for the purpose of melodic invention and investigation. This is particularly fun and rewarding.

Through all of this, I consider several aspects. One is bare attention, which is used here as I listen to, with an ever-deepening and unfolding sense of focus, the raw sounds and overtones of the drone as well as my voice (sea meets shore). Another is how my bodily and mental energies waken, and I follow what seems to relax and expand in my muscles as I sing. It is my strong belief that the power of music in large part lies in its capacity for sensorimotor stimulation—dancing, sure, but also muscle and tissue relaxation through focused listening and bathing in tone.

Another important aspect is how I can use this Tone Yoga (a sort of Sufi-inspired pranayama) in combination with Buddhist tonglen. The practice, as described by Buddhist nun Pema Chodren, has four simple steps.

1) Flash openness
2) On the in-breath, receive in the suffering of another person as thick, black smoke through all of my pores; on the out-breath, send out compassion for that specific suffering as white light in all directions
3) Isolate a specific form of suffering, in a concrete sense (ie, confusion in life direction, or forgiveness for a past wrong)
4) Expand the circle of inclusion in order to send out love and compassion all sentient beings.

I import this into Tone Yoga. I prepare to open my throat to sing, along with focus on the drone, I visualize inhalation of black smoke as the suffering of a person close to me. I then exhale as a release of love, forgiveness, and compassion. The tone becomes a form of love I offer to the world, for someone who suffers and even all sentient beings.

For the final stage, I set aside my guitar and my tones, re-acquaint to bare awareness (though now unmistakably infused with subtle vibrations from the tones), and I simply inquire: Who Am I?

Within interior space, I ask this question over and over again. It is a question easy to ask, and a mystery to answer. It is a form of koan, with inner responses such as "the thinker is not the thought", or "the seer is not the seen", or "the hearer is not the heard." There is very little in this place. Just the inquiry. And just I.

My contemplative practice lasts about 45 minutes. The second stage is the most active, as well as the one most difficult to describe. Stage one prepares my attention, stage two vocally expresses my attention, and stage three seeks recognition of what undergirds everything. The flow from one to two to three is quite natural, and for me really stirs openness, equinimity, balance, humility, and intuition.

For me, it is best to do it first thing in the morning. That way, my entire day proceeds outwards from this contemplative space, or core. I have found that, while slow at first, I can definitely feel effects that this integrated practice has on my mood, the capacity to be aware and present, my music and compositions, the capacity I have to offer forgiveness to others, the equinamity I can have in the face of suffering, and the simple joy of simply being alive. I can bring more of how I am to bear in my felt-life, and interactions with others. There is a great freedom, and a great responsiblity, and that is just how it ought to be.

Chicago, Illinois
January 2006

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