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Sleep

To die, to sleep—
To sleep—perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come – Hamlet

Sleep is a very important part of life.  It consumes roughly a third of it, and without adequate sleep, the rest of our life goes downhill rather quickly. A good night of sleep can change your whole disposition.  I must have slept well last night, for I walked through the snow this morning and thought what a beautiful day and a beautiful world this is.

There are many reasons why we sleep.  We sleep, in part, to rest and restore our body; the immune system gets a boost during sleep, and the hypothalamus releases human growth hormone in younger people.  We also sleep to rest our mind.  There are periods of deep sleep where there is almost no thought.  Similar, though not quite, like deep meditation.  I believe this period of deep sleep is essential for restoring your energy body as thought drains a lot of your energy away.  And then there are periods of dreaming.  Some dreams reflect business leftover from the course of the day.  Some dreams serve as fantasy, wish-fulfillment, a way to relieve the frustration we may feel in our waking life.  Some dreams are conscious, aware, but aware in a different dimension, an astral dimension.  Australian Aboriginals call this the Dreamtime, sort of an Outback telephone, a way they can astral travel thousands of miles at the speed of thought and communicate with their relatives.  Sleep is very important for a happy and healthy life.

And yet, for something that is so important to our lives, we look at sleep as something we have no control over.  It just happens… or doesn’t happen, or it is fitful or deep or short or too long.  In fact, we can influence our sleep to a great degree with our waking life.  We can do things to ensure the best sleep, and thereby gain its benefits.

Our sleep is affected by what we eat, and when.  Ever have one of those late night spicy pizza dreams?  Sleep is affected by alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or various other drugs.  Our sleep is affected by the amount and types of thoughts we think throughout the day.  If our mind is racing during the day, it will be racing while we dream too.  If we think fearful thoughts during the day, we’re likely to dream about fearful things at night.

So, a little common sense can help us ensure a good night’s sleep.  Don’t eat much late at night.  Moderate your drinking early in the evening.  Avoid caffeine or nicotine entirely, in the evening, if at all possible.  Get in bed before you find yourself nodding off in front of the TV (from one who knows).

Your position during sleep may have a profound effect on your sleep as well.  In the book Dream Yoga and the Practice of Natural Light they indicate that in order to enter into higher dimensional planes when sleeping, men should sleep on their right side, and women should sleep on their left.  This was interesting to me, as I almost always slept on my left side, and frequently had challenging dreams.  Now, due to the configuration of my bunk, it is nearly impossible to sleep on my left side, so I’ve been sleeping on my right, and my sleep has been much more restful.  Additionally, I now notice that when turning over to my left side, my whole digestive system seems to be in much greater stress, so I roll onto my back or right side instead.  I’m not sure of any physiological reason behind this, but it is very apparent to me.

One of the most effective things you can do to improve your sleep, is meditation (is there anything that meditation can’t improve?).  The practice of meditation helps you learn to reduce the number of thoughts you have throughout the day.  It also teaches you to focus on positive things, so when you dream, your dreams will generally be less frantic and more positive.  Meditation greatly increases the energy in your energy body, making sleep less necessary.  People who practice meditation on a regular basis may thrive on six hours of sleep or less per night.  Advanced practitioners may not sleep at all.  They sit absorbed in samadhi instead.  Rather than sleeping, you could say they are waking up!

Pleasant dreams!

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I realize that this is a strange title for a post, but then I’m reading a pretty strange book at the moment called ‘What is the What?’  It’s the story of a boy, growing up in Sudan, who experiences untold hardships during their civil war and the atrocities that followed.

It is a very engaging read and a delightful dialogue to follow, but the reality of what he relates is almost too much to handle.  We would all conveniently like to believe that stuff like this does not really happen, but, in fact, it does.  He talks about mothers, shot through the gut, who press on for miles running from danger, only to die on the roadside, with an infant at their side.  The author rescues one such child, and hopefully it thrives, but one never knows.

Or, his tales of walking through the tall grass, and having his friend, walking steps behind him, taken by a lion.  Our protagonist is never at a loss for words… he’s talking, always talking, always telling his story.  He talks silently in his mind, telling those who he perceives have wronged him in some way, about his story.  He talks as if to say, ‘I’ve endured so many horrible things in my life.  Why do you have to add to my misery?’

I think he talks about these horrible things he’s experienced so that he may get them out of his system.  Like vomiting out a bad piece of meat.  Once he has told his story, he can move on to other things.  This is what attracted me to the story!

When I was about the same age, I was stuck by a car as I was running across a busy street.  I broke both bones in my lower leg.  Not the most serious injury but enough to get your attention as a young boy.

During my rehabilitation, they told me to walk on the leg as much as possible.  And so I did!  I walked a couple of miles a day in my ‘knee cast’ (after a couple of months in a thigh cast), and I was happy to be able to do so.

All the while that I walked, I talked to myself, I told my story.  I poured out all the anger, frustration, injustice that I had experienced in life, to no one in particular… or to the cars speeding by.   It didn’t really matter.  It was ‘talking – as not talking’; talking to vent the frustration, but not to communicate anything to anyone, or to vent on anyone in particular.  The idea was that once I let these thoughts out of my head, they might leave me alone.  And they did!  I suspect this is why Valentino talks so much.

Meditation, I’ve found, is a far more effective way to assuage your thoughts.  You have more control over whether you think or not, and what you focus on when you do think.

But I suppose there are times when the pressure is just too great.  When you have to vent or explode.  In that case, I suggest that  you take a long walk around the block and talk like a crazy person to no one in particular (I suppose you could pretend you are talking on your cell phone), or perhaps write your thoughts down into a notebook, or tell your story in your own mind as Valentino does.

But then leave your thoughts by the side of the road and move on.

About a month and a half ago I made a post about my ‘Boat Experiment’, what I called ‘BEing‘. It talked about my first 45 days, experimenting with living on-board a 32 foot sailboat, in the New York Metropolitan area.  Today is about the 90th day, so I thought it time for an update.  The first week or two on the boat were a bit of a shock.  Then, the next month went by fairly smoothly.  The holidays were actually quite fun.  I cooked a great Christmas Eve and Christmas Dinner (I cooked the same thing both nights as I’d bought way more than I could eat in one night).

I got off the boat for a week and spent New Years up in Vermont… one of my favorite places in the world.  I got to ride in a ‘one-horse-open-sleigh’ (and joke with the driver about how often people asked him to sing Jingle Bells).  I’d planned to snowboard, but ended up snowshoeing instead, and really enjoyed it.  Much of the time, I just enjoyed sitting by the fireplace in great company.

Coming back to the City and back to the boat was a shock.  I didn’t realize how much I’d opened up, while out in the Vermont wilderness, and so when I hit the City, with all of the desire, and anger, and noise… it took me by surprise.  Once back in my small cabin, my meditation routine, my work routine, things got back to normal.

For me this such a ‘big experiment’, but I’ve known people who have lived aboard boats for years.  It’s no big deal.  Practically, it is no big deal.  But, it is a big deal on certain levels.

I decided to try this experiment, because I was fed up with a life that I was barely present in.  A life in a cushy apartment; a life where I’d end my day as early as possible, flip on the TV, throw something into the oven, jump back to the couch to watch some more TV, chow down, drink some more wine, throw in a load of laundry, watch some more TV until I woke up in the middle of the night on the couch, threw the laundry in the dryer, turned off the TV, went to bed and started all over again the next morning.

You can’t cruise your way through life on a boat (at least not in the winter time). Things are much more holistic; they coincide with the Sun and the Moon.  In the morning, the rising sun first starts to reflect off my neighbor’s mast spreader, and somehow manages to find its way directly into my eye, through the porthole, no matter which bunk I’m sleeping in.  This clues me in to the time of day (I don’t wear a watch).  Shower-time is dictated equally by my bowels and the bathroom cleaning schedule (should the twain never conflict), hence the time of day is important.

Once showered and back on the boat, it is good to stay busy all day.  Around 4:30, sunset is approaching, so, it is good to go for a walk, get some air, watch the sunset. I either eat out, or pick up something to cook on the boat.  Where I used to just throw something into the oven, and go off and do other things, cooking on the boat is much more deliberate.  I stand over the stove to stay warm, so, I pay much more attention to my food.  And, in the process, enjoy the heavenly smells (most of the time) emanating from the pots.

The dishes are washed immediately after dinner, as, I have no room for dirty dishes anywhere.  So, dinner is done by 7:00.  The rest of the night, I might work on the computer, read, or watch a little hulu.com, chat, text message, browse Facebook or whatever.  Then, relatively early, I shut down my electronics, decide what bunk I’m sleeping in, and crawl into a cool berth that quickly warms with my body heat.  I sleep a good night (though often with active dreams), and start again with the first rays of the morning.

I walked around today, and thought about where I am today, versus where I was 90 days ago, and I realized that my Boat Experiment, my BEing was a complete success.  I wanted to shock myself out of the rut I’d been in for the last several years.  I’ve succeeded!  I wanted to be present all throughout my day, and I’ve succeeded.  I wanted to save on expenses… I’ve saved about twelve thousand dollars so far… possibly fifty thousand dollars a year, if I go for a full year.  Whoo-hoo!  I’ve succeeded.

But more than anything, it is about being aware of and present in your life, recognizing when you’re not where you’d like to be, and having the courage to do something about it (however ill advised).  And coming out stronger on the other end.

Original Music

The shakuhachi is a Japanese flute made of bamboo.  They are played from the end, rather than transversely as many concert flutes are played.  One blows on a reed carved into the lip in much the same way we used to blow on the lip of soda bottles to make a sound.

The shakuhachi was traditionally played by Zen monks known as komusō or ‘Priests of Nothingness’, as a form of meditation known as suizen – ‘Blowing Zen’.  As with sumi-e painting or Zen calligraphy, the monk is instructed to clear their mind, and let the art flow from the ’emptiness’ which translates into English poorly, as emptiness isn’t empty at all.  Voidness is another word used to describe it, but still it lacks in the translation.  However you imagine it, the idea is to let the art flow into and through you and for you to be a worthy tool in the expression of that art.  You are more the brush than the painter.  Songs from the void, played in this manner, were known as honkyoku — original pieces or original music.

Nowadays, the shakuhachi is played in a variety of forms of music, the blues, modern jazz, folk songs, and yes, even honkyoku.  Back in the 18th century, a monk was commissioned to travel across Japan collecting these original compositions, which formed the basic repertoire for formal shakuhachi schools. Today, students are instructed to learn each piece perfectly; every note, every inflection, to learn to reproduce the music exactly as it was originally played.

This seems to me to be the complete opposite of what the ‘Priests of Nothingness’ were trying to do.

Transformation

Most people are aware that they have a physical body.  Many people are aware that they have an energy body.  Fewer people are aware of yet another body we have, known as the causal body.  The causal body is often described as a luminous sphere, roughly egg-shaped.  My own teacher described it as a series of interlocking rings of awareness; similar in concept (not shape) to the double-helix found in DNA.

In genetics, the unique way your DNA strands interlock, is what makes you YOU.  It gives you your hair color, eye color, skin color.  It is also what makes you a human, or a bear, or a tree.  Your causal body is like that too.  Depending on how your rings of awareness interlock, it determines what ranges of awareness are possible for you. In fact, some suggest that it is the configuration of the causal body that governs the structure of the subtle and the physical bodies.  So, if your causal configuration shifts to one formation, you may incarnate as a house plant, or to another, as a saint with mystical powers.  It is through the causal body that we evolve (or devolve) from lifetime to lifetime.

Our DNA sequence is pretty much set for life (gene therapy may change this in the not too distant future).  Likewise, our causal configuration does not normally change significantly over the course of our life;  the rings of awareness are interlocked so tightly, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to separate them and allow them to shift.  Typically, we only experience this burst of energy at the moment of death. When these rings of awareness separate, they will shift to a new position, like the way that tectonic plates shift when energy releases during an earthquake.

I said that our causal configuration does not change significantly over the course of our life, but it does change some, in response to major life events.  Events such as your first sexual encounter, the birth of a child, a marriage, the death of a loved one; these experiences shock us on a deep level (hopefully, in most cases, in a positive way).  That shock can release enough energy to cause our causal structure to shift. Carlos Castaneda called this a shift of your ‘assemblage point’.  When this happens, we know that our life has changed forever, we are no longer the person we once were.  Think back to times you’ve experienced this in your own life.

If you are fortunate enough to encounter an Enlightened teacher, or a teacher with great personal power, it is possible for them to empower you enough to shift your assemblage point on a fairly frequent basis, causing rapid spiritual evolution, provided you are striving for positive growth.  This is one of the primary reasons to seek out such a teacher.  It is also possible for you to generate enough power through your own meditation practices and selfless actions to shift your own assemblage point, though it takes a lot of work and dedication to do so.

On certain levels, we become conscious of a pending shift in our assemblage point. Most commonly, we experience periods of intense free-floating anxiety (not connected to anything we can put our finger on).  We have a sense of impending doom, although it could just as easily be an impending revelation.  On some level, it feels like we are about to die, and in a small way, that is exactly what is about to happen.  When our causal configuration, our assemblage point, shifts, our ego — our limited self dissolves and reforms according to the new assembly of our awareness. It is a little death of the ego.

Needless to say, the ego doesn’t like this very much.  So, it fights with all its might to prevent these shifts.  It will try to sabotage your practice!  Trick you into doing things that cause you to waste your energy, doubt your practice or distrust those who might help you evolve.  Why?  Because it is afraid of death, afraid of the unknown.

The only way I’ve found, to get your limited self to align more with your eternal self, is to get the ego comfortable with change.  Changing where you live, changing what you do for a living, changing what you think and how you act (hopefully in a positive way), all these things help your ego to embrace change, to face the fear and to walk through it.

You will find as you do this, that your meditations deepen.  Because it is fear that stops us at a particular level in our meditation as well.  As your meditation deepens, and you are wrapped in that silence, you begin to sense the unfolding of something incredibly immense.  Rather than retreating to the safety and comfort of your known world, just keep going.  Don’t look back, just keep going!

There is an old zen story about a man, who had to chop wood and carry water, and it was such a burden.  Then, he became Enlightened.  After Enlightenment, he still had to chop wood and carry water… and while he was doing the exact same thing, his perspective was totally different, it wasn’t a burden at all, it was a beautiful part of life.

Whatever we do in life, it doesn’t much matter, it is the state of mind that we do it in, that matters.

The parable means to tell us that physical circumstances may not change all that much for us, on the pathway to Enlightenment, but our perspective may change immeasurably.   I’m not Enlightened, but it seems that I have been the happiest in life, when my circumstances were the simplest, most rudimentary, most basic.

I had a scholarship to attend college, and they gave me all my financial aid at the start of the year.  Invariably, by the time the last quarter rolled around, I had no money left, and could work no more work-study hours for the school.  So, in order to eat, I would sell my blood plasma two or three times a week to the local clinic for $8 a pint.  With that, I’d buy a big bag of rice and some simple vegetables.

To supplement my meager diet, I’d take my Hawaiian sling spear down to the beach and prowl the kelp beds off shore for sea bass or rock cod.  I was a pretty successful hunter.  If I caught more fish than I could eat, I’d feed my friends and roommates, with a promise they’d have me for dinner one night that week as well.  Such simple, honest fare was not only good for the body, but good for the soul too.

Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

I live simply today, but I do not have to chop wood.  Though, I have been gazing adoringly upon these small cast iron wood stoves made just for small boats, but I haven’t taken the plunge yet.

However, I do have to carry water. During winter time, in the North East, they turn the water off to the docks, so that the pipes do not freeze.  My boat has 70 gallons of water storage, divided between two tanks.  I drink and cook with bottled water mostly, and use the water in the tank for washing dishes and cleaning up.  We’re so used to turning a tap and having an infinite supply of water at our finger tips, and so it was a bit of a shock to step on the foot pump to my galley sink and hear the pump coughing up air.

The nearest faucet is in the marina’s laundry room a few hundred yards a way.  So, I drag a five gallon ‘jerry can’ up to the showers with me, and fill it in the laundry room on the way back.  Full, the can weighs a little over 40lbs and gives your finger muscles a good work out.  It would take seven trips to fill one of the tanks, but I’ll only make one or two trips.  Then, monitor how quickly I use it up again.  It causes me to be very mindful of my water consumption!  I figure if I’m conservative, and make one trip a week, I can keep things going.

I don’t think I’m experiencing the sort of bliss with this chore, that Enlightenment would bring.  But it does seem to connect me to a vital, basic part of life, collecting water, that I would otherwise take for granted.

Reincarnation

This is a topic that people either really love, or they have a really hard time with. There is a part of us that so thoroughly identifies with this meat body that we have, that it is obvious to us that when this body ceases to function, we’ll cease to function too, so, how can there be anything past death?

Furthermore, there have been studies of what the lack of oxygen does to the brain, and it matches very closely with what people who have had near-death experiences report of their experiences.  So, if we are to believe these studies, then WE are just some sort of electrical impulse bouncing around the synapses of our physical brain, and will perish when it does.

NOT!

I’ve had too many experiences in this life that have shown me that there is or are many things that are way beyond this little reality we call home.  I talked about this once in a post about a Dream House I once dreamed about.  Reincarnation is only a problem, logically, if we think about the physical aspect of it.  We experience reincarnation several times each night in our dreams.

If you practice meditation and self-discovery, over time, you will begin to be much more lucid in your dreams.  You will remember them in vivid detail, and perhaps even act consciously in those dreams.  In each dream, you will be a slightly different person.  In one dream, you might be a clown, in another a  police man, in another a backpacker walking through the woods.  But, in all of them, there is a sense of familiarity;  like seeing a familiar actor playing different roles.

When you wake up, or when you shift to another dream, that dream character vanishes, they cease to exist.  Because they never really existed in the first place… they were just a projection of your mind.

If you dreamed that you were a backpacker, and that you got chased through the woods by a large bear, that large bear is also a projection of your mind.  It doesn’t really exist outside of your own mind… but in the dream world, it really seems real, so, you’d better run!

So, what if THIS life were but a dream?  (the refrain of ‘row, row, row your boat gently down the stream’ playing in the background)  What if all the scary boogeymen of life, like the IRS, or Al Qaeda, or Cancer, or Very Large Bears are just projections from some very Large Mind out there… which is really our mind, but we’re not yet lucid enough to recognize it?  What if?

What if you could be chased by a bear in your dream, then realize that the bear was just a projection of your own mind, and that it didn’t really exist, and so you would stop, turn around, grin, and stop the bear dead in its tracks (perhaps even make it vanish, or at least kick it in the nads).  Then, you would have true power my friend. Over dreams, and over life, and even over death!