Minding the Indigenous Mind
Mindfulness Journeys to Nirvana
Greetings Mindful Friends and Relatives,
The Buddha once said, "There is a way to be purified, to overcome sorrows and grief, to release suffering, to secure the right path to realize nirvana. This is to be mindful." Mindfulness is a journey that enables us to contemplate the origin of all things that arise in our minds and bodies and the termination of them. As we come to understand that nothing is permanent, we are relieved from our suffering. In this column I wish to share a short fiction/nonfiction story that I wrote about a mindfulness journey that I have begun and have yet to complete.
Day 1, Afternoon
I arrive at my destination to begin a ten day journey of mindfulness and neurodecolonization sitting meditation. I have sat in meditation for several hours a day, for a number of days, in the comfort of my own home. But that was in the northern California town where I live. This is the first time that I will be sitting outside, back home on the rez, and I imagine the energies, sensations, and effort will be quite different.
The buffalo grass is waving in the winds and the air is filled with the fragrances of sage and the earthy-smelling Buffalo Bur and Owl Clover flowers. No mosquitoes. No wood ticks. No biting flies, yet. To the east of where I will be sitting are the rickety willow frames of the sweat lodges from last year’s Sun Dance and my brother’s fasting camp. A lone bird, probably a scout, sits atop the one in the center, occasionally flapping its wings to keep its balance in the sporadic gusts of the prairie wind.
To the south, I can see the all but translucent shades of dirty, yellowish-brown plumes of arsenic, chromium, nickel, lead, and dioxin clouds rising from the coal gasification plant across the Missouri river. The rising ash makes no sound but portends a tale of climate change and compromised health for all creatures, waters, and lands. My Amygdala, the fear-central region in my brain, activates as I experience a bit of anxiety realizing that I am probably breathing in the noxious fumes that are blowing across the lake from the plant.
I gently place my big, dark purple, square Zabuton meditation cushion on the place that I have cleared for my sit. On top of it, in the center, I place my smaller round, black Zafu cushion. I sit on the Zafu as a test run, close my eyes, cross my legs, and sink into it. It is slightly off center and I stand up and make a few adjustments. I lay my two blankets that I’ve brought for the chilly evenings and mornings next to the cushions and go about setting up the sun shade, positioning it over where I will be sitting.
I will sit for long periods of time, meditating in silence, focusing my attention on training my awareness and concentration to mindfully tune in to my mind, body, thoughts, and all the sensations that arise. When my body asks, I will get up and mindfully move around, exercise, stretch, walk, eat and drink, and sleep.
Day 2, Morning
The first several hours of my mindfulness journey have been pleasant, as it seems that I have been able to hold the awareness of my breath and body without too much effort. My brain waves seem to be holding very nicely at a mid to upper Alpha band range, and I feel alert, relaxed, centered, and alive. Enlightened already? I smile at my arrogance.
Whenever an unpleasant memory, a twinge of anxiety, or a sense of boredom enter my field of awareness I acknowledge them, befriend them, accept them, and return to the awareness that I am breathing in and breathing out; whenever joy, happiness, or desire make their way into my consciousness, I do the same.
Day 4, Night
I stand looking at the stars above me and the darkness that envelops the land. The breeze is cool, and I detect the smell of smoke, probably from the fires that are burning in Colorado this summer. Tonight before I begin meditation, I find myself wrestling with many fears and self-doubts. After some time, I sit down and begin focusing on each in and out breath. I see the exact moment when each in breath originates outside my body, and I consciously breathe it in. I continue watching it as it fills my entire body and then ends when I can no longer take in any more air. I hold the fullness of my breath in my body for a moment and then take note of the instant that my out breath begins inside me and then exits through my windpipe and throat, and finally trails out of my nostrils: “Breathing in I see the origin of my breath, Breathing out I see the cessation of my breath. Breathing in I see the origin of all things, Breathing out I see the fading of all things.”
Day 53, Morning
I don’t know how long I’ve been distracted or if I’ve been mindfully maintaining my awareness of all the processes of my mind and body. It seemed for a long time that I had been successfully engaging the awareness of my breath and body. Then for extended periods, my consciousness began picking up mesmerizing, sometimes very disturbing, old memories that I had long forgotten, or didn’t know had taken up residence within me. When I regained my mindfulness, I gently detached from them, remembering that they are just memories. Before I could return to my focused breathing, my awareness exploded into beautiful shades of black and I found myself sitting alone in the deep, dark recesses of celestial space, breathing in and breathing out.
A wood tick is crawling across my face and it is at this moment that I realize that I have been visiting the “ghost cave” of makyo (魔境,), clinging to the experience of illusion and self-delusion. I smile and release myself from my bubble of deception.
I’m not tired or hungry, but I feel the wind and sun gently caressing my exposed skin. For some reason I feel it most in my hands: “Breathing in, I make my body calm and at peace. Breathing out, I make my body calm and at peace.” Calmness and peace evade me and I open my eyes and stand up, stretch, and begin walking to the west.
Day 54, Night
I’m sitting. I’m solidly grounded to mother earth, feeling her electromagnetic energies probing me as they rise, making their way to the stars above, and then descend back deep below to where they came from. Sometimes the waves of energy are so strong and saturated that I feel every part of my body pulse and inflate like a balloon that is filled with liquid electricity. I sit very still, unmoving, lest my body spring an energy leak and my soul escape, only to be whisked away and pooled together with the falling stardust. Concentrate. Breathe.
Sometimes the energies have a predictable pattern, and I am able to brace myself for each incoming wave as it builds momentum and strength and then releases into a calm buzzing in my ears and toes. At other times, the waves seem to chaotically materialize from all directions and engulf every molecule in my being, bringing me closer to a thermodynamic death. Death? Death is not so bad.
The ultimate fate of the universe is heat death. One day the universe will weaken to a state of having no thermodynamic free energy and therefore will no longer sustain the processes that devour energy, including life, including me. It starts to rain; gently at first and then a downpour bursts from above. I remind myself that I am at peace.
Day 55, Day
I remember the electromagnetic waves are distractions, and I go back to my breathing and adjust my Purple coneflower meditation position so that it is stable and synchronized with each breath. I allow my belly to become soft and begin my inverse breathing. I silently repeat to myself, “Breathing in I am connected to all life. Breathing out I am connected to all life.” My breath is alive.
Day 72, Night
The chirping sounds of the multitude of crickets all around me have now magically converged into single ringing chime that washes over and through me. The sound touches me for only a moment and then proceeds far beyond, to the north. When I become distracted enough I can hear it change back into millions of cricket voice choirs, rising and falling in an ancient unison. Their song begins to synchronistically pulsate with the beating of my heart. I use this shift in my perception to go back to my mindfulness breathing in the present moment: “Breathing in I bring clarity and purpose to my life. Breathing out I bring clarity and purpose to my life.”
Day 81, Afternoon
I’ve finally made peace with my memories of death. They arise and I no longer react with fear or grief. The blood has dried on all their faces and their smiles have returned. Their eyes sparkle and they turn and walk back toward the east and gradually fade away: “Breathing in I feel compassion for the suffering of those that have died. Breathing out I feel love for those that have died. Breathing in I feel compassion for my suffering, having died with them many times. Breathing out I feel compassion for my suffering, having died with them many times.”
Day 88, Morning
I slightly shift my sitting position and notice that all of last night’s aches and shivers are gone, and the burning in my legs from sitting in my semi-Purple coneflower position has finally faded away. In the southeast, the sun has now fully transcended the earth and raised itself over the horizon to see if I am sitting where it saw me last evening. Through the skin of my closed eyelids the sun produces a deep red that bleeds into my field of vision. The shade of red changes as I gently raise and lower my chin towards and away from the sun. All the life in the summer air has begun buzzing, singing, fluttering, and floating through the humid, damp sky that hangs above me.
My attention on my breath is like my breathing itself: life. The pace of my breathing remains unchanged, and I notice how my lungs and belly fill completely with the warm, sticky air that is gently blowing from the west. I exhale with awareness as my lungs empty emotional toxins from long, long ago. My mind silently utters good-bye confusion as I breathe out; good-bye self-pity as I breathe out; good-bye greed as I breathe out; good-by historical trauma as I breath out. In a moment of distraction, I am able to feel my breath as it enters and exits the hollow centers of the hairs on each of my thin, dehydrated, sunburned, wrinkled arms.
Day 90, Evening
With the subtle changes that are going on around me, I begin to ascend out of the deep breathing awareness that I had been suspended in for much of the past eighty-nine days. I feel myself being slowly liberated my from my connection to my meditation cushions and it seems as though someone has turned off the spigot of the earth’s electromagnetic fields. I am ending my sitting to return to the world of chaos, and I am reminded of Qigong Master Duan Zhi Liang’s teaching about disorder and confusion: “The essence of all evolution in nature emerges from chaos. By understanding the infinite energy that is always available to us, we can flow naturally with the chaotic energies of the universe.” Breathing in I draw in the never-ending life-force that envelops me. Breathing out I draw in the never-ending essence of this time.”
Day 91, one minute after midnight
I feel a hot, panting breath in my face, and the intense smell fresh of blood enters my nostrils. I slowly open my eyes to see that I am in a six-inch, face-to-face staring contest with a large mountain lion. In his eyes I can see the smoke rising from the coal gasification plant and his fur smells of crude oil. We calmly look at each other for few seconds. I uncross my legs and move my body slightly forward to stand up. My visitor steps back, allowing me the room that I need to get to my feet. I pick up my cushions and blankets and walk through the grass towards the gravel road. My companion follows beside me as we both fade into the darkness, heading towards the lights of White Shield, heading towards nirvana.
Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, PhD., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org