(PART ONE OF A TWO-PART INTERVIEW)
Meditation is a word with as many meanings to people as forms of practice. It can mean devotion, contemplation, reflection, mindfulness, heightened awareness and focus, or simply peace and quiet. In most Eastern religions, it serves as the center of daily awareness and contact with the deeper self, or soul. In many Western religions, its importance is somewhat to entirely less. Some religions incorporate or feature meditation in their practices; others ignore it altogether.
Given all the variables for this ancient practice, sometimes a book comes along that breaks down the basic premise of meditation — and then provides equally simple exercises that will benefit all of us. Retired college professor William Blake has written that book, A Creative Toolkit of Meditations, now available on Amazon.com and through bookstores nationally.
A direct descendant of the great poet William Blake’s brother, Mr. Blake offers twenty simple tools with a basis in mindfulness that are specifically adapted to people with busy lives, tight schedules, and countless things on which to focus. In other words, nearly all of us. He spices it up with an excellent bit of memoir and personal storytelling, to give us background on his own journey, as well as the tools he presents to help us with ours.
What follows is part one of a two-part interview with Bill Blake on the back story of A Creative Toolkit of Meditations, and the book’s value to all of us.
WORDJOURNEYS.COM: First of all, Bill, what motivated you to write A Creative Toolkit of Meditations?
WILLIAM BLAKE: I diligently studied and practiced seven spiritual traditions, spending a year or two for each one. Each delivered a useful message and helped me climb the steep, rocky path leading to greater functionality and happiness. Yet these practices, and their books, didn’t provide me with a coherent model. Depth and breadth were lacking. So I began writing the book I couldn’t find: a short, simple, reader-friendly book conjoining growing up and waking up, presenting a variety of easily mastered meditations with illustrative anecdotes, all of which encouraged readers to construct their own meditation practice. In sum, I attempted to write what I couldn’t find in any bookstore.
WJ.COM: You spend a lot of time in the book working with “real-time” meditation practices. Can you elaborate?
WB: I invented this phrase, or at least didn’t borrow it. “Real-time” means a meditation that is done posthaste. You’re eating with a friend, and he makes a remark that irritates you. You observe and feel this agitation, and then you release it by breathing it in slowly and deeply and then breathing it out slowly and deeply. You friend has no idea that you’re fully experiencing, and then letting go, of your negative feeling toward him. That’s real-time meditation. It makes conscious what’s here-and-now. With sit-down meditation, you’re sitting down in a meditative posture and conducting a meditation that will last at least a few minutes. It could direct your attention to a troublesome or enriching incident that happened yesterday. An efficient toolkit includes both styles of meditation. Both augment mindfulness, i.e., conscious awareness.
WJ.COM: We talk about being conscious, but what does it mean to be in a state of full consciousness?
WB: First, we experience a knowing (not a belief, conviction, or mere mental understanding) that I am consciousness. I am consciousness is not a belief, but a recognition. In short, full consciousness implies that we’re aware of our own awareness along with the object of awareness. If I’m fully conscious, I’m aware of my hand on the steering wheel, and also aware that I’m aware of my hand being on the wheel.
Second, full consciousness is the sense of being connected with everything. Everything is connected with everything. I am the plate, bread, butter, potatoes, and beans right in front of me, and then I am the whole table along with whatever is on top of it, and then I am my wife’s smiling mouth and lips.
Third, full consciousness expresses awe and Wow! as we experience inner and outer realities. Objects, from a sunset to a coffee cup, have enchanting shapes, colors, textures, and smells. This enchantment is caused by our perception of “focal points,” which are the most concretely perceived part of any scene. If we look at our desk, we can see dozens of objects and can identify them by name. Yet each milli-second, we’re subtly attracted by a single object.
WJ.COM: Can you elaborate on how it draws out from a single object?
WB: For example, I’m now observing my computer screen. I notice the whole screen. Yet the focal point object is the shining silver surface of the hp logo contrasting with the blackness surrounding the hp letters. A milli-second later, my focal point is the straight right vertical line of the typed page on the screen. In another milli-second, my focal point is blue tip of a pen sticking up, with five other pens, above the rim of a circular cloth container. Full consciousness perceives one focal point after another, all day long. They produce the awe of life.
WJ.COM: It looks like the writer in you found plenty of appeal with this book, too, especially when you broke down how different traditions view “consciousness”. How did you present that comparison in the simplest possible form?
WB: Here’s how I summarized various traditions’ verbal pointers to What We Are:
• I must have and be awareness to experience anything. (Modern)
• I must have and be nothingness to experience anything. (Oriental)
• I must have and be the light to experience anything (Quakerism
• I must have and be here and now to experience anything (Everyday talk)
• I must have and be spirit to experience anything (Hindu and Western)
WJ.COM: You narrow down the various goals of meditation to two words – inquiry and mindfulness. Can you explain their differences – and also why they are such drivers of transforming lives when brought together?
WB: We practice inquiry when we have an issue: uncertainty about joining a church group, confusion over which career choice to follow, unhappiness with a mate, a lingering health problem, which political campaign to sign up with. Of course, we can also address these issues by reading a book or by meeting with experienced friends to access their wisdom. There’s more than one inquiry route to mindfulness.
To expand mindfulness, we practice it with both real-time and sit-down meditation. In addition, we are always breathing, and the breath is always manifest and available. By simply noticing our breathing, we become more mindful and stop beating ourselves up with negative thoughts about ourselves or someone else. With sit-down mindful meditation, we can move into the Silence and then deeper Silence. After a while, our minds slow down their assault of negative thoughts. Peacefulness assumes its rightful place in our lives. In short, inquiry provides useful answers to difficult questions, and mindfulness progressively cuts out trashy thoughts and feelings.
WJ.COM: What are points in common between the two styles — and at what point do they come together?
WB: Both styles feature Silence. Inquiry meditation asks a question and then passes into Silence which doles out answers. Mindfulness meditation starts and ends with Silence. It thus stresses an increasingly peaceful mind.
If both inquiry and mindfulness meditation are employed, we’ve got two strong, flexible walking sticks through our dense mental forest. One reinforces the other. As we clear out overgrown brush and tangled roots, or practice inquiry, we dive deeper and deeper into peaceful mindfulness meditation.
WJ.COM: A most impressive aspect of your book is how you present meditation to the dynamics of today – the hurried lives, bombardment of mind-numbing messages and external stimuli, pressure to make ends meet. Why is it so important for us to bring our practice to bear on the situation at hand, rather than trying to escape or “rise out of it”, as some practices might suggest?
WB: Americans encounter several debilitating issues every workday. Americans work longer hours than employees in any other modern industrialized country. Until about 100 years ago, marriage meant joining a community of extended family members who helped to raise our children. Now, both parents often work and children are farmed out to paid keepers. In addition, we’re submerged in a legalized society where we must be careful to follow the rules. A solid vocational or academic education requires many years of study. About 50% of recently graduated engineers can’t find decent work with decent salaries. For most adults, their environment is not a relaxed and enjoyable one. An hour’s crowded freeway drive to work and back isn’t fun. Many goals and payments have to be met.
With this pressure to conform, meditation can teach us to be fully present in each moment. The freeway traffic is heavy, but the cars are brilliantly colored and designed. A variety of radio music, interesting news programs, and even poetry are available to breathe in and out. The hills and trees can be beautiful, and buildings are often designed with exquisite form and color. As you walk into your work office, you observe Margie has white strings threaded through her dense black hair. George is as comically gruff as a bear and moves like one. Your desk is uncluttered and clear, with all the its pens, staplers, and a computer screen accommodatingly ready to work. You think, Today at least half the time I’ll serve my customers while being present and mindful. Meetings will be enjoyable with all their confrontations and absurdities.
(PART TWO WILL APPEAR ON MONDAY, JANUARY 27)