This begins my year long series of looking at how we can use tenkara as a teacher in our lives. Wherever you are in your personal tenkara story, beginner, novice, or veteran, I hope that you will benefit from this year’s blog articles and that you will be inspired to explore what I am going to playfully call “the tenkara way.”
Beginning your path - Meditation and Tenkara
Before we proceed, I would like to ask that we get rid of our preconceived notions and imagery of what meditation is. Please set aside the stereotypes and exaggerations that have been fed to us by the media and our western culture. We can better practice meditation without those tropes and with an understanding that fits and suits our modern lives.
Beginning a Basic Daily Meditation Practice
Meditation really is about putting yourself into a place where there is nothing but the moment. Like any exercise we do it strengthens us. In this case the muscle it strengthens is our “quiet mind” or "no mind". With enough practice in seated meditation, we can begin to apply meditation to any action we are doing such as washing the dishes, walking the dog, spending time with our families and friends, and yes, fishing a stream. Seated meditation practice is where we create focus, attention, and stamina to being present. Meditation helps us find that place of being where our minds are not dominating our every thought.
The instructions that follow are a great way to begin your seated meditation practice.
Create space and time to sit.
I have found that the early morning is a good time to start my seated meditation. I start most mornings by taking my dog for a walk, when we get home, I put the tea kettle on to get it hot, and and I go and sit. Over time, seated meditation gives us a familiar centering point to count on. With this practice we discover that we can nurture and cultivate the state of "no mind" and come back to it as needed as a default place of being. This gives us the ability to clear our minds in any situation and just be present to what is in front of us. This is specifically helpful in stressful situations but also helps us appreciate the details of joyful moments in our lives too.
It is important to be comfortable while you sit. You are going to be sitting still for several minutes at a time and need to be able to maintain a seated posture for that time. You can choose to sit crossed legged, kneel with a pillow or cushion under your legs or, just sit in a straight back chair with your feet flat on the floor. Whichever way you choose, you want to keep your backbones stacked on one another, keeping a straight and upright posture. In keeping your spine straight, it may be helpful to imagine you have a cord that goes up from your tailbone, through your spine and up out of the crown center of your head. The cord pulls everything up slightly and that makes your spine strait. Adjust your hips as needed so that your torso balances on top of your cushion or chair, “like stacked stones.” If seated on a cushion or bench your knees should touch the ground as a foundation for your posture. If your knees are up off of the floor there is a potential to roll or lean left or right.
Relax your head, neck, and shoulders.
Your chin can drop slightly down towards your chest. Your shoulders should remain straight and can be lightly shifted back allowing your arms to fall naturally down your sides. Sit gently now and let your eyelids rest, not closed but peering out softly to a spot on the floor 3-4 feet in front of you. I try to have the floor in front of me and around me clear of distracting things.
Find a stillness in your body.
Sitting still is really all that meditation practice needs to look like. Over time you will adjust as needed and be able to get into your sitting position with little effort or thought. Then you will find your place of stillness very easily. When we find our stillness, we are in a place of reduced physical stimulation, and our mind can begin to quiet itself too. In the beginning you will at times feel your body protest. A little itch on your nose, a sneeze, a cough, a cramp maybe? etc. Often this is just our mind kicking in to distract us a little. Its okay to scratch an itch, or readjust your position, just don’t be controlled by it. See what happens if you don’t scratch your nose…. Does it go away on its own? In stillness we are watching our mind and observing our bodies.
Learning to breath...again.
You may not know it but most of us do not breath correctly. Something changes in how we breath over time and be become more "mouth breathing" than "nose breathing". I can recommend a book called “Breath: the new science of a lost art” by James Nestor. If you want to learn more.
For our meditation practice I want to suggest you start with simply taking air in through your nose, filling your lungs. At the top of your breath, hold it for just a second (or two?). Now slowly begin to let the air go out through your mouth which is resting with our teeth apart and tongue floating lightly in place against your upper palate. Open your lips just enough to let the air escape. We breath the air all the way out and can hold again for a second before we begin to inhale again.
Meditation is simple...
...Our minds on the other hand, are tricky.
This practice takes time to really fall into with consistency and clarity where we only follow our breath. Our minds are so good at creating stories, thoughts, and questions. To this day I still find myself getting lost in some wonderful adventures of the mind while I am sitting. Other times you will feel other less positive or desirable emotions come up. Anger? Frustration? Impatience? When this happens, watch those emotions for a second or two. Identify them as sensation and just go back to paying attention to your breathing again.
How long should I meditate?
At the beginning try a week of sitting for just 10 minutes every morning (or mid-day, or evening.) Then the next week move up to 15 minutes, then 20 the next week. You can set a timer with your smart speaker, or I like to use an app called “Mindfulness Bell”. The app allows you to set a meditation timer that gives you 30 seconds to get into position before giving you three bell chimes starting your meditation period. At the end of the period there are two chimes ending the session. Over time you can extend your time sitting to even longer sessions. You can even take a break after a 15–20-minute session and just walk, drink a glass of water or tea and then resume for another 15- 20 minutes. This kind of resolve takes time to build but has great benefits.
Why do we do this?
Our motivations will all be different I suppose, as will the experiences we each have. The common thing about this practice though is seeing our minds and thoughts for what they are. We are so used to listening to our minds that we don’t even notice it slipping in where we don’t want it to. We become confused that our thoughts are “reality.” Thoughts happen in our minds and are not tangible in the physical world. Meditation practice though lets us identify and understand those thoughts, feelings, and sensations in a way that really lets us live in the moment and reality of our lives. One of my Zen teachers used to refer to "no mind" (or as she and her teacher called it "Don't know mind") as being like a clear button on a calculator. You hit the clear mind button and it zeros out all the mind noise and input. You are left then with clarity and an understanding of relationship to the situation before you. Having proper relationship to our lives, we can stop making decisions based on the things our mind wants us to believe and instead understand what our true situation is.
.Taking your practice to the river
Sitting meditation is the foundation for building connection to all things we do and even the interpersonal relationships we have. As we nurture it and build our practice of meditation, it settles into our active lives and becomes a natural way in which we live, work and see the world. Stillness meditation becomes active meditation.
When we go out on the water to fish tenkara it becomes an active meditation. Our process becomes one of watching one moment transition into the next. From standing in the water, to watching the stream, to looking for where we are going to cast, casting to that spot, watching the line move through the zone, and then maybe a strike, maybe no strike. We will see ourselves follow life while we become aware of our breath through all these steps. Sometimes this whole process of fishing meditation will lead our attention into a moment of pause, feeling the water around our legs, the wind on our face or the beauty of the scenery around us, appreciating the colors, patterns and life of the fish we just brought to hand.
I do hope that you will give meditation practice a solid try. It seems easy enough to do on the surface, but sometimes when we sit our minds will stir up thoughts, or possibly feelings of boredom. Remember that the time you spend practicing seated meditation is like any skill. The more we practice the easier it is to just be there present and aware. Don't beat yourself up for feeling challenged or for even "falling off of your cushion" for a few days, or weeks even. be gentle with yourself and get back up on that cushion again.
Finally, when you go fishing make time to stop, take a break, and practice seated meditation under a tree or in a meadow somewhere. Listen to the water, smell the breeze, and feel that connection to the world in front of you.
This was a longer than usual post I know but it was hopefully one that you will value and use. I look forward to hearing your comments below. Please take a moment to share a comment, thought or question and I will reply. Until then lets practice through the winter months so we can be sharp for the spring and focused in our practice of "The Tenkara Way".
Dennis Vander Houwen lives in Colorado with his patient and supportive wife, talented artist son, a smart older dog, a new river puppy, and a very lucky cat.