Letters on meditation

Dear Reader,

I enclose some letters between Matt Webb and I that we both feel are worth sharing. Topics include: meditation, breathing, Arthur Dent, puffing sacks, giving form to that which you know intuitively, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and the gentle hum of radiators.

In a wonderfully self-fulfilling way, writing this has itself given a form to something I only knew through intuition until yesterday.

And yes, I’m sticking to the word letters because somehow the truth (e-mails) seems depressingly cold for a topic such as this. They deserved a typewriter with an old ribbon, a failing key or two and reassuringly thick paper. Diagrams in the margin drawn with a fountain pen.


On 24 Nov 2005, at 23.50, Rob Annable wrote:

Dear Matt,

Great entry on meditation. I too find myself unable to put aside the short chunks of time meditation deserves, but you’ve encouraged me to try harder.

Some advice that I’ve read elsewhere that you may find useful….

Concentrate on your breathing by imagining the point on your body at which the air enters and leaves – the tip of your nose. By focusing on a specific thing you can push all other things/distractions out of your mind. Count each breath but give yourself a system to structure your counting better – only go from 1 to 10 and then start over, make yourself start again if your mind wanders.

Then soon the tip of your nose will become forgotten as you concentrate on your breath. Then, perhaps, your breath will become forgotten as you concentrate on your trajectory, as you call it. A gap appears between you and your body. You realise that the body is perfectly capable of breathing on your own while you go off and do other things. Try not to laugh with delight. Once it becomes automatic, etc, etc.

Arthur Dent learns to fly by forgetting to hit the ground. It’s a bit like that. Perhaps the dressing gown is important.

I may have a book somewhere, what’s your address?

Regards,

Rob


On 25 Nov 2005 at 12:07:54 Matt Webb wrote:

Hi Rob,

It’s a curious thing. The more I talk to new friends, the more of them I find have been meditating daily for many years.

I tried for 10 minutes this morning, taking the advice you mention. The first paragraph is the easy bit.. I didn’t even get close to the second. It seems like that experience of suddenly seeing will be the way it happens, though.

I would be interested in a book, if you find it, thanks! If not, I can look it up if you remember the title.

best
Matt


On 29 Nov 2005, at 0.54, Rob Annable wrote:

‘…My body is a bellows, an automatically moving, rhythmically puffing sack…’

That’s it. You’ve nailed it. I’ve never read such a fitting description.

Sorry if my previous description of the counting/breathing process was a little tricksy.

I’ve returned to practice myself and it’s no surprise to find that I’m completely out of touch with the process. I shall have to start again.

Your comment about the puffing sack got me thinking about new ways to look at the problem. I think it’s got something to do with distance and the new found perspective this gives. Counting your breaths gives the process a formal structure. A topography that you can observe objectively. By observing it you step away from it.

It reminds me of something I once stuck on everything2.com when I used to mooch about there a little (before I had a blog to bore everyone with):

‘In my experience, the moments of greatest clarity come when you read or are told something you already knew intuitively. Something that you’ve never had either the experience or need to formalize in your mind before. By being shown old words in a new order, you’re intuition takes shape and becomes recognisable as a form that you can hold up against others like it.’

We’re formalizing the breathing process in order to put it aside. We can pigeon-hole it now that we know what it is. It’s become a thing whose form we could hold up against other things in order to categorise it. In your case, a puffing sack.

I used to find it quite useful to try meditating in front of an open fire. Not because of some hippyesque notion of the power of fire, rather as a subtle way of locating myself in the room during the process. It’s about simple stages: I allow the feeling of heat and the quiet sounds of the fire to help me picture, categorise and then put aside my actual physical position; I count my breaths to allow me to distance my mind from my body; I empty my mind in a way that Dan Ackroyd must have wished he was capable of when he accidently conjured up the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Room-(fireplace)-body-(breathing)-me.

The fireplace and the breathing are simple tools to help me reduce the topography of the room and my body to something more manageable that I can pack away.

The book I was thinking of is a book on Buddhism. I was confusing it with a web page on meditation I read some years ago which I no longer have the address for. It’s a good book though and you’re welcome to it if you want it – Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor.

I don’t think I’d be too worried about recording your thoughts on this journey. Like you, I’ve never been keen to have a teacher for meditation, but perhaps you could look upon your blog as somewhere in between. Writing this has certainly been useful for me. If you don’t mind I may blog some of our correspondence myself.

Apologies for using two sci-fi comedy references in as many e-mails.

Regards,

Rob

p.s – I’m pleased to see Peter has been able to help, he and I were talking a little about Buddhism a few weeks ago and promised to pick it up again soon. You’ve reminded me to do so.


On 29 Nov 2005, at 18:29:28 Matt Webb wrote:

Your point about formal structure is completely it. I was thinking the same thing yesterday, but didn’t write it up last night because I wasn’t sure how to express it.

Please do write this up on your weblog (and feel free to quote from any of our emails) because I’d like to point to it :)

This morning, there was a gap in my mind apart from the counting and the breathing, and it was being filled with random thoughts. I filled it with the hum of the radiator, and that did the job. Hardly your open fire, but near enough.

best
Matt

ps. cheers for the book recommendation. I’ll look it up I think, but thanks for the offer!


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