After four days away in the woods of Cloud Mountain, a Buddhist meditation retreat center down near Mt. St. Helens, Washington, I’m back in the Emerald City of Seattle surfing traffic in my four-wheeled kayak. With fiercely serene contemplation my breath guides me to all the sweet spots between grinding dump trucks and vrooming sports cars and teeth-gnashing morons, oops, excuse me, peoplyps, wow, post-meditation Freudian malapropism there smashing together people and polyps! Oops, back to the breath. Breathing in, breathing out. Good thing we worked with our nasal orifices and not any others. Indeed.
During the retreat, we focused on Samatha or Concentration and Tranquility Meditation with Jhana practices. Samatha is “the other twin” to Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, and is little known in North America. It’s beginning to take root, however, as it is rediscovered by many practitioners. My two teachers, Tina Rasmussen, a former nun, and Stephen Snyder, had immersed themselves deeply in these Samatha practices. They mentored under a rare master, the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw of Myanmar/Burma.
After studying and practicing Vipassana in Seattle for two years it proved to be the missing link. For the two middle days I spent at least nine to ten hours in sitting meditation, or attempting to, and the rest of my time awake meditating while walking, eating, and during tasks such as brushing my teeth or working as one of two “soup yogis.”
As part of trading work for money to get myself into the course, I set up and maneuvered giant soup contraptions for the cook. It wasn’t hard, especially as a tiny woman with a head-spinning mane of hair who once spent five years as a bald nun on a silent Zen meditation retreat handled those big soup gamdoodles even faster than I did.
While Vipassana cultivates mindfulness including self-awareness, Samatha is sustained concentration focused into singularity of awareness aligned with purpose. As I understand these matters, of course. Our teachers warned us reentry “back into the world” may be challenging at times as we juggle competing responsibilities, demands, and sensory overload. They reminded us we would not have hours everyday sitting in saintly contemplation with screaming ankles, shouting hips, numb legs, and throbbing backs.
Instead expand the practice from time on cushions and chairs to “markers,” tasks such as brushing my teeth to brush my teeth and washing the dishes to wash the dishes. Focus on what I do in every moment rather than thinking about the past or hurrying to the next mindless act. With concentration every act becomes one of meditation. One of concentration and purpose. If you slip away fantasizing of cheeseburgers and svelte lovers and then panic over your to-do-list, return to the breath. Return to my breath and brush my teeth.
So Tuesday morning I stood in the bathroom. I stared at the bathroom mirror with purpose. With conscious intent I raised my right arm, reached forward, grabbed the cabinet door, felt the texture of wood, pulled open the door as I lifted up my other arm, reached in with my left hand, wrapped my fingers around a tube of toothpaste, felt the difference in texture, noticed it was peppermint-flavored Tom’s of Maine, picked up the toothpaste tube while reaching for, taking, and retrieving my toothbrush with my right hand.
During all of this I inhale and exhale, breathing in, breathing out, feeling the flow of air in the regions between my nose and my upper lip.
Carefully as I stared down in mindful concentration I moved my blue and white colored Oral B toothbrush into position over the edge of the white, porcelain sink with my right hand as I maneuvered the tube of toothpaste into squirting position with my left hand.
Oh, I’m getting really good at this meditation thangy! What a powerful way to celebrate the absence of absentmindedness! Woo Hoo!
With intense deliberation and immense concentration of focus, I squeezed the toothpaste tube with my left hand as I held my toothbrush with my right.
A huge blob of peppermint toothpaste launched out onto the hard, flat backside of my toothbrush, which I held upside down. Globs of paste galooped down onto the edge of the sink and parted in two. Half slid down toward the drain, and the other half plopped into the shag of a shaggy, green bath mat.
“Damn!” I said as I lost my composure and laughed. In all the times of unmindful teeth brushing I’d never ever squirted toothpaste onto the wrong side of my toothbrush.
I imagined my teachers Stephen and Tina chuckling as they’ve been in far longer and deeper than I and have experienced all manner of people being human. I imagined an impish Buddha grinning as I learned my lessons in being so cocky, so sure of myself, and over meditated.
When was the last time you did anything like that? When you carefully put your pants on backwards? Well, earlier today at my weekly bloggers’ group I had to pee really darn bad, so I rushed to the restroom fumbling and grumbling where oh where is the daggone ZIPPER? Cuz oh Sweet Jesus, oops, oh Laughing Buddha, I rilly rilly gotta GO!
As I began a weird little fidget of desperation, I realized I’m wearing my last pair of blue jeans, the ones I wear ONLY when all the others are in the wash, the one pair some one gave after the Fire with BUTTONS instead of zippers…buttons I have to fubble with to properly undo…
Oh, those, those HINDRANCES!
Yeah, what happened the last time you had a day like that?
And as I laugh, back to the breath.
William Dudley Bass
13 December 2011
Revised 5 January 2012
NOTE: Go online to Jhanas Advice @ http://www.jhanasadvice.com to learn more about Concentration and Tranquility Buddhist Meditation and the Jhanas. Contact Stephen Snyder, Tina Rasmussen, and their new and powerful Teacher-in-Training, Brian Gavin there on the website. Whole new experiences of reality may open up for you.
Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.