Personal Reflections on the Practice of Mindfulness Meditation as a Path to the Spiritual Self by S. Kelly Avants, PhD

Preface

In preparation for conducting a research project at Yale University on the role of spirituality in the treatment of addiction, I began reading books on Buddhist philosophy and psychology and on practices such as meditation for the purpose of integrating some of these practices into a structured treatment intervention. Although I had used, and created, guided imagery and visualization audiotapes in the past for my patients and for my own personal use, I had never attempted meditation, perceiving it as too passive for me. However, as I was seriously considering including meditation as a component of the treatment program my colleagues and I were developing and would subsequently evaluate for efficacy with a sample of drug-addicted individuals, I decided that I should at least try it, if only to identify potential obstacles to adherence that might be encountered when providing the intervention to others. Thus, I firmly resolved to begin meditating. In addition to reading as much as I could on the subject, I began by getting up an hour earlier each morning in order to set aside time specifically for my meditation practice. Following my sitting meditation each morning, and before beginning my usual work routine, I ate a light breakfast which always included a fresh orange. Therefore, when I expanded my meditation to include the practice of mindfulness, I saw the orange as an obvious choice for the subject of my practice. As the days passed, I became increasingly desirous of creating a record of my experiences. I was eager to extend and preserve the many benefits I was receiving from meditation. By permitting myself uncensored creative expression of insights gained during my meditation practice using images, words, and stories, I found that I was increasingly able to integrate my practice into my personal life. My purpose was therefore quite selfish. However, after sharing a few of the pieces with one or two family members I was encouraged to compile them and share them further. What follows then is a compilation of some small lessons learned while listening to an orange peeling offered humbly by a novice in the life-changing practice of mindfulness meditation. This offering would not have been possible without the encouragement of my husband and colleague, Arthur Margolin.

Dedication

This collection is offered in loving memory of my brother-in-law Alan Moore whose courage inspired me to stop and listen.

1. Listening For The Peel

Being a novice meditator,
I'm used to taking "time-outs" not "time-ins".

I began my practice of sitting meditation, awkwardly, painfully, seated bolt upright and cross-legged on a cushion on the floor of my study each morning at dawn, wondering how on earth anyone could actually want to engage in this practice regularly, and extremely thankful that I was doing it "for research purposes only" and would stop just as soon as I got the hang of it and could gather the information I needed for my project.

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2. Essence of Orange

Being a novice meditator,
I struggle with the concept of inter-being.

As is now my practice, after completing my sitting meditation, I make my way to the kitchen to continue my practice of mindfulness in the preparation of my breakfast. Today, however, I am distracted from breakfast by thoughts of the ingredients I'll need to purchase for tonight's dinner.

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3. Contemplating the Navel

Being a novice meditator,
I'm finding single-mindedness difficult.

When I was a graduate student at Yale I had a professor who insisted that when using words we must understand not only their contemporary meaning, but also their etymological origins. So, in preparation for his class, my fellow-students and I would spend quite a bit of time looking up key words in the Oxford English Dictionary.

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4. California Dreamin'

Being a novice meditator,
I'm learning to ride the waves.

Today the label on the orange tells me that it has come from California. I find this bit of information particularly intriguing on this cold January morning as I stand in my chilly kitchen in Connecticut. I wonder about the location of the grove in which this orange had come to fruition.

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5. Orange Aide

Being a novice meditator,
I still cling.

My father died four years ago, yesterday, a few minutes ago, this moment. The moment of his dying now forever engraved in memory such that it now holds permanent residency status in every moment of my life.

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6. Ask the Expert

Being a novice meditator,
I'm sometimes slow to recognize my teachers.

Yesterday I finished reading a book on Buddhism written by a well-respected professor of religious studies at an Ivy League University. Although it provided me with a great deal of useful information, it did not give me what I needed. This morning I sit down on my meditation cushion, close my eyes and focus on my breathing.

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7. Black Spot

Being a novice meditator,
I lose sight of the path.

I'd begun getting up at 5:30 a.m. solely for the purpose of making time for my meditation practice before the encroachment of my usual work-related activities which typically begin at 7:30. I had found that with practice I was gaining access to a place of deep peace within me not only during the time set aside for meditation, but also later in the day while engaged in activities that might otherwise have been a context for stress.

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8. Michelin Man under the Orange Tree

Being a novice meditator,
much comes before I'm ready.

In my meditation today I decide to try some techniques described in books on tantric mysticism that I had been reading for my research, specifically the use of mantras and mandalas as meditation tools.

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9. Lara's Gift

Being a novice meditator,
I receive many gifts.

My breakfast orange today is one of 15 oranges that arrived via UPS from Florida. A special gift from Lara -- a friend and colleague who recently moved there.

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10. Intermission

Being a novice meditator,
I've been keeping my eyes closed.

I stopped meditating. It happened gradually. I went out of town for a while, missed several mornings, got too busy, found I could not concentrate, started getting up later, had no time, tried to make time during the day, got too many interruptions, concluded that I'm not the right sort of person for meditation; realized that it just takes someone so much more focused (and less busy) than I am, and what good had it done me anyway?

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11. Orange Psychoanalysis

Being a novice meditator,
I choose the difficult path.

Today during my meditation I still felt blocked. Something was getting in the way of my feeling connected to my true spiritual nature. I begin to reflect on what may be blocking me. I start with my thoughts.

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12. Marmalade and other Worldly Desires

Being a novice meditator,
I tend to get bored without variety.

This morning I awoke feeling hungry -- that "hollow-stomach" feeling. In keeping with my practice of mindfulness I note its presence and let it go. It didn't let go of me, however. After finishing my sitting meditation I hurry to the kitchen and instead of reaching into the refrigerator for an orange, I find myself hunting through the kitchen cabinets in search of just the right thing that will satisfy this hunger.

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13. Sliced, not Peeled

Being a novice meditator,
I strive to meditate the right way.

My meditation practice today was guided by last night's reading on the use of mandalas in Tibetan Buddhism and by my early morning reading -- Meditations on Tara -- from a book entitled "How to Meditate" by Buddhist nun Kathleen McDonald.

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14. Same Old 'Rind

Being a novice meditator,
I'm slow to shift my perceptions.

Get up, go to the bathroom, let out the dog, let in the dog, feed the dog and cat, drink a cup of tea, meditate, eat an orange, begin work. So what's different about today?

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15. My Kingdom for an Orange

Being a novice meditator,
I still create objects of desire.

Every moment since sitting down on my meditation cushion this morning has been filled with just one thought -- I have no orange for my breakfast. I had asked my husband to buy oranges yesterday. He forgot.

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16. By their Fruits

Being a novice meditator,
my differentiations confuse me.

As I sit on my meditation cushion today I am surrounded by books. What began as a few books that my husband and I used in our research on the role of spirituality in the treatment of addiction has grown to a collection that our local library would covet.

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17. Certified Organic

Being a novice meditator,
I'm influenced by labels.

Today my orange is "certified organic" -- labeled clearly as such by some trigger-happy grocery store clerk not once, not twice, but three times, with, hopefully, an equally non-toxic sticky label. What a treat. I begin my breakfast preparation with great enthusiasm and expectation.

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18. Distance from Tree to Me

Being a novice meditator,
I do not readily recognize my own Buddha nature.

Today I find myself reflecting on the questions I had asked myself that first day when I began using an orange as an object of my mindfulness meditation. Those questions had helped me to become more aware of my sensory experiences.

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19. Beach Peel

Being a novice meditator,
I'm only just beginning to understand compassion.

This morning I took my dog, Jenny, for a walk on the beach near my home in a sheltered cove on the Long Island Sound. On weekends, particularly in the summer, it is usually crowded, but on this early spring morning, Jenny and I have it all to ourselves.

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