This is the second Blog regarding ‘Gamifying’ life and how helpful that can be. In meditation there are lots of games we can play. Buddhists call this ‘Skilful Means’ - ways which make the useful practice of meditation accessible - to make it meet you where you are. To do this here is a game I sometimes play:
"I imagine my feeling body is a 'deep ocean' and the thinking mind is the 'sky'. Every time I meditate I am taking a voyage of discovery into the feeling body; into the depths. I'm deep sea diving!"
This analogy is striking to me because of some common understandings about the Ocean. This quote from NOAA describes it well:
“The ocean is the lifeblood of Earth, covering more than 70 percent of the planet's surface, driving weather, regulating temperature, and ultimately supporting all living organisms.Yet for all of our reliance on the ocean, 95 percent of this realm remains unexplored, unseen by human eyes.
In the same way as we have only about a 5% knowledge and understanding of the great interconnected oceans we also feel and really intimately understand or ‘know’ our feeling body to about the same measure (give or take… feeling is a very hard thing to quantify into a statistic!) So if each time you meditate you are taking an exploration into your depths there is always something new, interesting and beautiful to discover.
In my imagination I see the mind as like an iceberg in the ocean - the surface of the mind, above the ocean, is consciousness - this is where we (the being that is you, which is more than just a mind) launches from. Below is subconsciousness.
Above water your thoughts reside, where they can easily take off and fly - like a bird or a cloud - they can go off into the sky… but in meditation we bring the attention back to the ocean - meditation is a practice of focusing on feeling, not on thinking. So we are not here to follow the clouds and birds - we let them continue to fly and swirl be and we take some time to explore the depths.
Taking the plunge
I imagine the attention is like a diver - using his hands and a spotlight to experience all the depths have to offer. This reminds me to pay attention to my breath, much like the diver does, and to the body - the ocean full of life: which includes slippery fish of all shapes and sizes (emotions), old wrecks at the bottom of the sea (physical and psychic wounds / traumas) and of course, hidden treasures within them.
If it is your first time, it can be a weird idea to meditate. It’s a very simple thing, but also a skill, that requires practice just like diving. Until we have tried it we can only imagine what is under the surface. The reason we meditate is the same as we dive - to explore, to know oneself and one's environment. Here I’m going to look at some of things you might expect to encounter in that environment and one way to deal with them:
Fishy Emotions (and learning the art of fish tickling)
Emotion is energy (E) in motion – like a school of sardines – they can be very fast and slippery fish –and if I approach them too fast they slide away. I want to observe them, understand them, and feel the very essence of them - even ‘make friends’ with them... but in order to do so I have to become an expert in the subtle art of emotional ‘fish tickling’. This is very different than using a hook, net or harpoon to catch a fish - which are brutal methods and often damage or kill the fish, in the same way that trying ‘too hard’ to catch a thought or emotion often kills it. If I kill it I can’t study it, appreciate it in its living form and then let it go. In exploration we want to study and appreciate the environment in a respectful way.
One method is to learn the art of fish tickling, sitting patiently and is open and waiting for the emotion to move into my presence – and then I can tickle it, kindly; touch it be with it - see it for what it is – just a little fish moving around my body. Sometimes this fish feels like heavy or warm or spiky - when I see this and practice ‘feeling’ it I come to realise that all emotion is just sensation - energy moving and tickling me in various ways.
So here are my tips for learning to appreciate emotions, via emotional fish tickling:
Spiky Urchins, Jellyfish and Electric Eels (Pain)
Not all fish are pleasant to feel - some sea creatures require careful study - they can give us pain. If we experience pain as ‘bad’ and then either swim away from it or suppress it - force it away. In doing this we miss the beauty and the understanding of this part of the ocean. So when it comes to meditating on pain I sometimes imagine it as a spikey fish, and again I can come to it slowly, with patience and tickle in a different way - You can pick up a sea urchin if you do it delicately, same with a Jellyfish or an Electric eel. Come at them skilfully and cradle it. Then examine it, watch it, I listen to it; really see it for what it is.
With Urchins the only way to do that is to really try and see the centre of that pain, which is constantly moving - it undulates along with the spikes of the creature. After a while and with practice we can approach pain in a new, more appreciative and understanding way. Whatever pains you have in your body if you examine them carefully you can transform them into something interesting, beautiful and maybe even useful.
Murky depths, old wrecks and lurking sea monsters
(Exploring the obscure parts with memories)
When we explore places we are not familiar with it is sometimes difficult to ‘feel’ sensation , or to see through the murkiness (instead we experience numbness) - and it can feel uncomfortable to stay at these depths for long. These are parts of the body that we haven’t visited in some time or have been disturbed - perhaps there is an old wreck lying on the seabed or the perception of a monster here?
To me, these represent forgotten and difficult memories, wounds or traumas - the ‘feelings’ left behind from an event. Physiotherapists define a trauma as ‘a deeply distressing or disturbing experience’. This could be something seemingly very small (being told you were stupid and you adopting a posture that expressed your feeling at the time) or something very strong (a physical abuse or damage).
Traumas and wounds sit at the very depths and require skill and care to explore - we often need to come back to the safety of the shallows or even to the surface. It can take many dives to explore these uncharted and murky depths and doing so can reveal unexpected and unusual emotions that further disturb the seabed and cloud the water with murkiness. This is all metaphor for what happens when we explore difficult sensations, emotions or parts of the body. There is usually a reason why these parts are difficult. In mediation we are not looking to the thinking mind - back on land - for the cause, but we are patiently and physically exploring the depths - the sensations of this part of the body.
Sometimes we stumble across an old wreck - perhaps a memory that you forgot or a sensation that you relate to a specific time. Sea monsters are the ‘imaginary creatures’ our mind has created that stop us from going into these depths or wrecks. Sometimes they seem very real and therefore the mind feels them as real - your body creates sensations and responses. A good example would be my shoulder blades - I experienced uncomfortable emotions and bodily shaking and tears when I explored my shoulder blade areas. In regular life I felt numbness and pain across my back. I realised, on some level, that this was to do with my back operation, but when I explored it more I was fearful of a monster - this was the reminder of the physical and emotional pain (including shame) that I experienced within the operation. With time I took lots of little excursions to explore these areas and it was tough - it’s not easy to stay at these depths… at first.
When we have explored the shallows for some time and built up our skill at diving we feel ready to the depths, knowing that no sea creature can really harm us. Until then it is wise to practice caution in mindfulness - to face these creatures only when we feel ready to do so.
In my case it took me 6 months of kind, gentle meditation before I became more comfortable with exploring these parts. It was a time of my life I found difficult to accept. Why couldn't I meditate!? This is all part of the process of treasure hunting! Soon after I began to dive deeper I could see how fascinating this all was. In amongst the wreckage I found something - treasure! The treasure was that of ‘discovery’ - this area was transformed from a painful, scary, murky and numb place to a beautiful, interesting location. This old wreck has history and depth and soon became an attraction for regular excursions. Nowadays, whenever I meditate I find it a pleasurable and interesting experience to explore the sensations of this part of my spine and back, but I know that there are many more treasures to find, as I’ve only really begun to explore.
My current areas of exploration
I’ve got several regular expeditions on the go - the pelvic and genital regions of of great interest (lots of traumas there no doubt, in all of us). I’m also currently exploring the ocean when it is movement - when I move my body. This makes it much easier to ‘feel’ but harder to notice subtlety. I have found that when I rotate my body the areas around my lower spine are in mild pain and there is emotional schools of fish flashing across my body. I wouldn't have noticed them before, but as I become more attuned as a diver/mediator I’m able to see and experience more subtle and smaller creatures and life within me.
Have a go - see how your body feels when looking at it like a vast ocean, ripe for exploration via meditation.
Neil Morbey is a meditation teacher, group facilitator and inspiration guide for Positively-Mindful.com