Meditation Q&A with Sebene Selassie

Congratulations on making it to the final day of Meditation Month! How do you feel? Did you meet your goals? Did you find out your goals were different from what you might have thought? Perhaps the beginning of this month feels like a different year. Given the extraordinary circumstances we’re in—and the very real panic, fear, and physical and emotional suffering that is affecting people around the world—Tricycle is keeping all Meditation Month 2020 articles and resources free and accessible. If you’ve succeeded in the 31 day challenge, keep it going! And if you’ve faltered, start again from Day 1. After all, starting again is the essence of practice. 

In the middle of this month, shortly before directions encouraging social distancing were put in place in most of the US, Meditation Month teacher Sebene Selassie hosted a live meditation online and answered participants’ questions in an informal Q&A. We hope that her advice can provide a little extra guidance and serve as a touchstone as you carry the daily practice that you cultivated throughout the month into the rest of your life.

Can you speak on the benefits of open awareness practice, such as big sky meditation, versus focused attention practice? I have some friends who teach open awareness to all their beginning students and believe that this kind of natural awareness is really beneficial and doable for everyone. But I tend to find that focusing practice works best for gathering my disjointed, distracted attention. I usually start with a gathering of awareness—usually of the breath or body—and then move to open, natural awareness, or big sky meditation. What I find beneficial is that when I then open up to big sky awareness, I’m aware of all phenomena arising and passing—sounds, thoughts, sensations, emotions—but I don’t get swept away by them, because I’ve spent some time focusing and settling into my awareness. Whereas, if I start with open awareness, I can get lost and caught up in whatever is arising. That’s not necessarily the “right” way, but it’s the way that works for me. 

The Thai Forest tradition employs a metaphor that compares awareness to a candle and a wick. Samadhi, which is  sometimes translated as concentration or “gatheredness,” is like the wax of the candle. Vipassana, or insight, is like the wick. If you have only wax, there’s no light because there’s no wick; there’s no insight, no understanding, no seeing things clearly. If you’re just applying concentration, you may not be able to be aware of what’s happening or see patterns and understand your experience. But if you’re only a wick—if you’re not cultivating samadhi—there’s no gatheredness and the light is not sustainable. We’re a wick-y culture: we’re smart, and we have fast minds and plenty of insights, but we seem to lack the gatheredness to stay with things and bring centeredness to our experience. Open sky, the light of the wick, needs that gathered waxiness. 

When focusing on breath, I sometimes have two minds—one with thoughts, but the other on the breath. I don’t follow the thoughts, but I am aware of them. I wonder if it’s really two minds, or if it’s your attention going back and forth between one object and another. Buddhist teachings say that we can’t pay attention to two things at the same time, although it seems like we can. I can speak and be conscious of what I’m speaking about and also have a sense of the room and your face, but actually, my attention is quickly moving back and forth at a rate that’s not perceptible to me. When we focus on the breath, our attention will constantly be shifting, because that’s the nature of our awareness. It’s not really a problem, actually, it only feels like one. Our practice can be a gentle process of just re-relaxing into the breath. We don’t have to force it or feel like the thoughts are a distraction that we should push away, we can try to simply recognize that’s the nature of attention, of our capacity for awareness.

What should I do if I miss a day of meditation? I want to hold myself accountable but I don’t want to beat myself up. Recently a friend and I were reflecting on the word “practice,” and how it can become another tool for us to judge or be hard on ourselves. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that it’s possible for us to hold the impulse to criticize ourselves for missing a day of practice—or even four days of practice—with the same sense of balance with which we hold our actual meditations. 

In meditation, we are invited to not judge what’s going on for us, but rather to be in relationship with whatever is happening with a sense of kindness and commitment. The goal is to bring this intention to each breath, our thoughts that arise, and our physical sensations. We’re not practicing to become good meditators, to get good at sitting on a cushion every day—we’re practicing in order to develop a different relationship to our experience. While we can’t control what’s happening around us, we can cultivate the capacity to be with what is with more ease, joy, and freedom. Practice doesn’t need to become an activity that we have to get done, part of a to-do list that we’re checking off.  Our practice is our whole life. It’s not about the 15 or 30 minutes on the cushion; it’s about seeing how much presence, awareness, kindness, joy, and freedom we’re bringing to each moment. That’s as much of the practice as it is the fruits of our practice. If we’re making the effort, there’s no reason to beat ourselves up. 

In your first talk for Meditation Month, you described how you came to Buddhist practice, first practicing in the Zen tradition and then in the Theravada tradition. How should a beginner navigate the many Buddhist traditions and find the one or ones that are the best fit? You might have heard of the smorgasbord approach to meditation and Buddhism—jumping around the buffet table from tradition to tradition, from practice to practice. I think it’s helpful to look around and try different things in order to see which communities, teachings, and practices seem to be a good fit. Yet it’s also important to recognize that there’s never going to be a perfect practice, tradition, or community. Sometimes I use the metaphor of trailheads on a hiking trail. They all end up meeting and taking you to the same peak in the end. (The caveat is that we’re not trying to get anywhere—there’s no peak—so this is a terrible metaphor.) It’s helpful to recognize that if you’re jumping from trailhead to trailhead, you’re never actually getting on the path, and you’ll never be able to find the place where those paths meet. Now, which tradition speaks to you is dependent on so many things. The Buddhist traditions offer different benefits and different approaches; it really depends on your personality and your inclinations. 

Can you recommend any meditations for practicing in the midst of the current global health crisis? In general, I recommend centering, grounding, gathering practices that relax the heart and mind—and that will be different things for different people. They say there are 10,000 dharma gates, which just means there are 10,000 ways to practice. Each of us has to find ways to own our way to hold the anxiety and fear circulating around and within us. 

For me, that’s often doing lying down practice. I feel fully held and supported by the Earth when I’m lying down; there’s no extra energy or tension that’s trying to keep my body upright. This is such an undervalued practice, and I advocate for more attention to this formal posture. Of the four formal postures [in Buddhism]—sitting, walking, standing, and lying down—the latter is rarely taught in formal meditation settings, partly because a lot of people fall asleep. I think that’s OK, most of us are really tired and need the extra sleep. Lying down also helps to establish a breathing pattern beneficial for dealing with anxiety. I’ve found that a lot of anxiety comes from chest breathing, and that people hold a lot of anxiety in their chest. Relaxing, breathing long breaths into the belly, can be very helpful.

The classical antidote for fear in Buddhist teachings is metta, or lovingkindness. A story goes that monks were afraid of spirits in the forest, and the Buddha offered them metta as the antidote. With lovingkindness, we instill a sense of kindness, care, and connection into our way of being, one that is profound in terms of shifting the energy of fear both within us and around us. 

To be totally honest, I’m having a hard time myself—it’s not that I don’t fall prey to fear and anxiety just because I’m a meditation teacher. I’ve noticed how often I check the news for new information and updates [about the coronavirus pandemic], but how little that information actually changes. I’ve realized how important it is to be disciplined with our information hygiene and to notice what kind of information we’re taking in and whose voices we’re hearing. This is a collective issue. There are a lot of people whose incomes are going to be greatly affected, such as my 90-year-old neighbor who takes care of disabled children and grandchildren. We can recognize that our fear and anxiety isn’t going to help people who might be more affected by this uncertainty—and we might be one of those people. We can be of service by bringing some kindness, care, groundedness, and balance to those around us. 

All of you making time in the middle of a Wednesday to come together, practice together, to share, and to listen—that’s not nothing. All of us have busy lives, and we have our own obligations and responsibilities. The fact that we’re doing this is a huge sign of the love and freedom that’s growing.  Try to remember that as much as possible because we’re going to need that fortification of each other’s energetic practice to get through everything. I really encourage you to keep connecting, to keep practicing, and keep sharing.

Original author: Sebene Selassie
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Friday, 27 November 2020
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