One Sunday morning I drove through the rolling hills to Spirit Rock Meditation Center for a one day meditation retreat with Ajahn Brahm. Ajhan Brahm is an Australian monk who ordained Bhikkhunis (female monks) even amid threats from Thai Buddhist authorities to cease this activity. He was quickly excommunicated for defying their authority. Excommunication is big deal in any tradition. Standing up for female monasticism took courage, but if you ask him, I imagine he’d say it was just the right thing to do. Not only did Ajahn Brahm act in the face of excommunication, he kept his sense of humor and humanity while doing so. Afterwards he remained kind to himself and others, including his brothers who did not stand by him. This is an inspiring demonstration of the Buddha’s teaching on kindness and understanding- where the rubber meets the proverbial road.
If you ever get the chance to be in the company of this charming monk, jump on it! If you don’t have the good fortune to find yourself in his vicinity, take heart. There are a number of wonderful books by him- Don’t Worry, Be Grumpy, Who Ordered this Truckload of Dung, The Art of Disappearing, and Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond. Through his books, and in person, he exudes humor, kindness, common sense and a deep understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and practices. And, did I mention, he is laugh out loud funny.
There were many things the Ajahn touched on that I found moving. The piece I’d most like to share with you today is his translation of the word samadi. Samadi is usually translated as concentration. This, Ajahn Brahm says, has led to many problems for Western meditators. How many times have I heard people say, I’m a bad meditator, I just can’t concentrate. But meditation isn’t about concentration, or any other form of mind control. Thoughts arise and fall just as the breath rises and falls. This is natural. Instead of thinking of meditation as stopping thoughts, or as concentration, we can think of meditation as presence or, as Ajahn Brahm puts it, silence. When we meditate we relax into a state of silence. Rather than creating more suffering by trying to force the mind to go against its natural inclination, we allow the mind to be as it is, creating the opposite of suffering; ease, peace, and silence.
How do we relax into silence when there is so much going on inside our mind and body? Our body is chattering away about aches and pains, our mind is chattering away about lists and remembered conversations and past events and future fears or delights. Ajahn Brahm teaches that we come to silence through, as he calls it, kindfulness. We start kindfulness towards ourselves by picking the most comfortable sitting position for our unique body: whether it’s a chair or pillow, on the floor or anywhere else. Ajahn said that his meditation center shopped around until it found the most comfortable chairs they could find for their meditation hall. Then he did a funny riff on the possibility of adding an eating table and a toilet to the chair so you’d never have to get up. There was a lot of toilet humor, which has the ability to dissolve any tendency to make a monk, or Buddhism, holy, or beyond us. Everyone shits. That said, the main take away from this is, find a comfortable position for your body.
Once you’ve found your sitting position, with kindfulness, you allow yourself to fully inhabit your body, being kind to whatever is found there, shedding light and warmth on any tightness or aches and pains. By allowing the aches and pains to run their course rather than tightening up around them or trying to ignore them, your body gets the message that it can be just as it is. That is kindfulness. From that place of acceptance the body is free to release whatever is not needed for its natural state of ease. If you need to sneeze, sneeze. If you need to scratch your arm, scratch your arm. Rigidity is not meditation. Meditation is presence, silence, allowing, kindfulness.
Silence sets in as the thoughts and feelings arising are received with the same open kindfulness that our body has just enjoyed. Angry feelings, sad feelings, loneliness, elation, memories-all these can arise into a welcoming atmosphere. Understanding that thoughts and emotions are human and natural, we receive, hear and allow them to share the open space we just created in our body. All thoughts and feelings are approached with kindness. Slowly, stillness sets in. We remember who we are beyond the broken heart, the painful body, and all the other things in our life that usually define us. For these few moments of meditation we are free! That freedom goes on to color our everyday life.
Kindness towards others begins with kindness towards oneself. Meditation is a perfect time and place to cultivate self-kindness, or kindfulness. I give thanks to Ajahn Brahm who not only offered this teaching, but embodied it and made me realize I too could embody kindfulness.