Meditation and Other Altered States
As a teen, Kung Fu training was my full-time passion. It was the 60s. Drugs were thought to be a legitimate tool for gaining enlightenment, but seeing friends deteriorate after habitual usage made me stick to my training all the more.
My mental state was often one of agitation before I trained, and then so clear and empty afterwards. Curious about the way training could alter my state of mind, I read about Zen meditation. I went to a temple in L.A.. with a real Japanese “roshi” (Zen master).
At the temple, a group of initiates were directed to benches where we all sat, eyes closed and backs straight, waiting for a bolt of enlightenment to strike. A bald, robed monk was entrusted with the duty of correcting our postures to make sure we were not slouching on the job with a whack on the shoulder with a stick to bring us back to a state of attentiveness.
I was curious about the whole procedure and could not resist the urge to peek at the other meditators. They all had their eyes closed — and I made sure to do the same whenever the monk with the stick headed my way. But I still peeked through my eyelashes at the others while attempting perfect posture for the piercing gaze of the head monk and his stick.
After seated meditation, we were led one at a time to a private audience with the roshi. In those days, all I did was train in Kung Fu. I had the minimal body-fat of a full-time athlete, my hair was short and I wore baggy clothes.
When the roshi saw me, his first words were, “Are you a girl?” His Japanese accent made it sound like, “Are you a guru?” — which meant an Indian master. Confused and thinking he must have been giving me a perplexing riddle to meditate on, characteristic of that sect of Zen, I left his chambers and returned to Kung Fu training, unenlightened as ever. I had far too much physical energy and too little patience to sit and think about nothing.
Ever curious, I attended a lecture with the Mahareeshi Mahesh Yogi, the guru that had taught transcendental meditation to The Beatles. While seated at one of his lectures, the sound of his melodious accent and soothing words made me uncontrollably sleepy. Embarrassed to be nodding off through this learned man’s lecture, I stumbled out of the hall. Mahareeshi’s hypnotic voice wafted into the lobby, making the hard bench where I slept during the rest of the lecture feel like a bed of soft clouds. Clearly, I would have to mediate while standing or I might sleep through my moment of enlightenment!
Years later, I had a teacher at art school who had once been a cook and student at a Zen Temple. Jean Detuex was a French-Belgian who read philosophy books about phenomenology to us. Some of the sentences from these books were so long that they would begin at the top of a page and continue on to the middle of the next page.
Jean taught us Zen mediation and how to count our breaths. I would meditate before I painted. During one such meditation, I saw myself sitting on the floor meditating. Then I saw myself seeing myself. Then I saw myself seeing myself, seeing myself. Layer after layer continued till I finished the session, like a kaleidoscopic mirrored tunnel. The whole experience blew my mind.
We were all assigned the task of painting the same motif over and over again for a whole semester. Ever the glutton for punishment, I crumpled up a brown paper bag and through it on the dirty, grey cement floor for my still life. For the first few weeks, all I saw was brown and grey, and what I perceived as darker and lighter variations of those two colors.
The I began to see tiny vibrating particles of bright green and pink and yellow and blue. What I once perceived as dark lines were just the intersection of two vibrating opposing color planes. The whole experience of observation became an exciting, moment to moment, changing cascade of beautiful colors. Rather than feeling chained to the boring assignment of staring at a piece of litter on the floor, I felt I was privileged to be able to watch a wonderful show.
When Jean came to my easel for his weekly critique, he said, “Ah! The colors are beginning to dance.” I had finally discovered what I was looking for and why I had gone back to art school.
Painting is a form of meditation for me — watching the slight shifts in tone as the light passes over surfaces of objects and in space. As soon as I record what I see, the moment passes and the color changes. I then change it to the new color. I often create a muddy paintings this way, but sometimes one comes through fast and with true clarity.
I watch people moving — at the beach — on the subway — in a dance class — and draw shapes and lines as fast as I can without looking down. Eventually the whole page gets filled with what looks like scribble but is actually a record of moment to moment movements in space.
When I was a child, I used to lay in bed at night and draw the shapes in my mind in the air with my finger. My younger sister with whom I shared a room would go crazy with irritation watching me. As an adult, I drive myself crazy. I doodle lines and shapes over every paper near me and can never find my phone messages because they are buried under the scrawl.
The summer of 2000, I was working on the standing meditation I had learned from Kuo Lien Ying. I was inspired by living on a hilltop with a beautiful view, the perfect place to look far and work on posting. Despite the beautiful view and fresh air, standing totally still in a poised position can get pretty boring and uncomfortable.
In the morning, I stood for an hour, gazing at a distant mountain. Then I trained other internal forms in the woods. That night I had an experience I’ll never forget.
After falling asleep, I was awakened by a strange whirring sound, like wings flapping and metal gears grinding at the same time. I felt a powerful sensation in my spine, like it was spinning and twisting. I felt myself slowly drifted upwards till I reached the ceiling. Floating up there with my back against the ceiling, I gazed down at myself sleeping.
The feeling was so powerful that it scared me and I woke up. I looked around at the bedroom walls, not knowing who or where I was. Once I realized I was in bed, the fear drained away and I was disappointed that I was no longer floating alongside the ceiling. I attempted to return to the levitating dream state by closing my eyes and relaxing, but I could not get back. “I dreamed I was a butterfly and when I awoke, I wondered if I was a butterfly, dreaming I was a man.” (Chung Tze)
Some types of training are a meditation in themselves — like the circle walking from Bagua. I have a circle of bricks that I walk barefooted on top of and the bricks sit ontop of a stoney path. I gaze at a pole in the middle. Whenever my mind wanders while I am walking on the bricks, a brick tips over and I land on the stones. It’s very Zen, because if I get distracted with thoughts, I fall off. It’s also very Taoist because I am moving energy within my body and I am also in synch with the spinning of the earth.
I do Taoist meditation regularly for the different organs according to the time of day. The “Zodiac Watches Qigong” are very easy and give back so much energy. My student (and now teacher) Kevin learned them from Master Guo, who is 105 years old. He recently moved back to China and sent his “younger brother,” Chen, (a mere 87) to teach his American students.
When you nourish any organ, it supports rather than drains energy from another organ. Your energy and functioning is improved, whether you do all 12 in a 24 hour cycle, or just one or two. Your mind is clearer during the meditation because you have to concentrate on the controlled breath and movements and clearer afterwards because your body is not causing you stress.
I have experimented with lots of meditations: Buddhist chanting, yoga, prayer, African drumming, guided imagery while standing, and internal strength breathing forms. The different types of meditations all make you feel more enlightened — more patient, relaxed, aware, in tune with nature, and healthy. T’ai Chi and push hands is one of the best types of meditation I have ever played with because it accomplishes everything the others do PLUS it makes your bones denser, makes you grounded, centered and even able to defend yourself.
When I “play” push hands with a good opponent. I hear the other player’s energy listening to my energy, listening to her/his energy, listening to my energy – like a pebble thrown in a pool, ever widening, concentric circles of awareness, endlessly waving outward. Like tennis players having a long exchange, or a surfer riding out a big wave, experiencing first hand (or watching others) in these states of pure concentration is exhilarating.
“He who knows himself is wise. (S)he who know others is enlightened.” (Lao Tze).