• Karl Thunemann

Reshuffling my Lineup—Radically

In February 2020 I trotted out the topics contained in my loving-kindness meditation as my starting lineup. * There were at least nine topics; I intended to immerse myself in them daily. Sometimes it took 30 minutes, sometimes an hour, depending how much my mind got caught up in the process. Sometimes I would fall asleep, but when I awoke I almost always remembered just where I wandered off thew path. So I could resume.

And then sometime in the ensuing months my devotion to this meditation began tailing off. I still considered myself devoted to loving-kindness, but not in the scripted way I had started out. A new meditation I had started learning presented itself as a path to loving-kindness. Perhaps that would be my vehicle.

But first, I had an (almost) new daily practice—meditating with mala beads†. I was drawn to mala beads in part through my early curiosity about the Catholic rosary. But they are different. Rosaries are scripted, and their origin can be traced to the mala, which is far more ancient. Mala beads are the original, providing a means to maintain space and discipline as you chant the mantra you associate with them. Naturally, I use “om.”

And there are others. Sometimes I can’t remember them all. But let me try now.

Let’s see … mala beads (oh, a reminder that I have yet to practice today) (And, this added later, I never did get around to it, though I did talk to my therapist about meditation. I even wore my mala beads around my neck to this appointment, so I wouldn’t forget!) ...

Lojong slogans, part of the Tibetan system known as seven-point mind training. So far I am up to Slogan #5—Rest in the nature of alaya, the essence. But I have not even found time to search for the definition of alaya. This system also encompasses Tonglen, also called “taking and sending.” It is the Tibetans’ chief instrument of loving/kindness. It can be employed to engage with spirits of people you know, people you have heard of, even of sensate creatures you cannot yet even imagine. But the slogans are the key for me. And there are 59 slogans, so I have a long way to go (even though I did jump ahead to #59 at the start). So far, the slogans present a fascinating two-edged challenge. How do they apply to me, and what exactly do they mean? …

Tai chi, or taiji, as my taiji partner and other modernists persist in calling it. I first started learning the tai chi Yang style long form in 1985. I fell out of love and set it aside for many years. Then I resumed, and only recently began learning taiji 24, a shortened form. My form is dismal, I fear. But as long as nobody produces a video image that I would surely find humiliating, I can fancy myself to be practicing it again. I could do it every day. So far I am satisfied with once a week. I frequently have to remind my partner that taiji IS considered a form of meditation.

Oh, dear. The other day I was telling my therapist about my new lineup, rattling through the entries until I came to the last one. I couldn’t remember the last one, couldn’t even summon an image of it. This kind of thing happens to me fortnightly when I struggle to recall which guest contributions have been posted—or not posted—and to recall which epistles I am working on for the next Keyboard. Oh, Miss Otis, what are you doing to me?

…The healing sounds of the Shaolin Temple, a Taoist meditation that focuses on emotions and their relationship to the various clusters of organs—no thinking allowed. Except, of course, for trying to remember which organs—and their related sounds and emotions, both negative and positive—come next. My last tai chi teacher taught me this meditation. I was enchanted, and then discovered that there were six healing sounds, whereas he had taught us only five. But when I asked him—What about the triple burner? –he shrugged me off. I think I finally have a handle on this last sound—also called the triple warmer—and so add it to my new lineup with more than a hint of timorousness. As you might well expect, this was the meditation that slipped my mind during my recitation to my therapist. But it does belong!

…The I Ching. Am I alone in approaching relationship with this ancient Chinese oracle as a form of meditation? I certainly hope not! Over the 50-plus years I have been consulting this phenomenon, it seems to have molded itself to me, making jokes that I am certain to understand and gently chiding me for my frequent lapses. I do not often sit down with the oracle these days, but when I do it always seems spot-on. A consultation with the I Ching almost always feels imbued with meditation. It was the I Ching that exhorted me to embrace “radical change,” which has led me to framing this new lineup.

…Making friends with death … This is not the name of a meditation, but the title of a book by Judith L. Lief, a teacher and writer who follows the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. A while back my therapist asked about my long-term goals, and I responded spontaneously that I wanted to prepare for death. This was not exactly new. I have understood for a long time that each of us may die at any time. But preparing? It seemed intimidating, as if such intentions would have the effect of hastening my death. While I want to be prepared for death, I also want to be fully alive. Then, as synchronicity would have it, I ran across a reference to Judith L. Lief’s book. I ordered a copy, and left it unopened for several days, hoping to keep my trepidations at bay. When I did open the book, I was astounded to discover that I have been trying to make friends with death for many years.

But this list? I find it both necessary AND intimidating. Do I have the capacity to carry out this many practices? Probably not. And as I type this, I picture a flow of quarterly report cards, with C’s, D’s, Incompletes, and the occasional B. If I should live so long. May I continue these practices with as much discipline as possible—and a minimum of discouragement.

*You could take a look: It’s called “At Last—a Starting Lineup.”

†I announced its arrival last fall with “How Mala Beads Girdled my Globe.”