It was about a very common problem to do with uncomfortable tightening of the breath each time the practitioner meditates. I won’t relate the whole exchange, because it was quite long, but in part his question was:
“… whenever I observe the breath, either at the nostrils, in the chest or the rise of the stomach, I get very tense. I notice the tenseness in my face and particularly around my eyes. In my early days of meditating, I’d just push on with this and didn’t pay it much attention. I’d often get very frustrated, but carried on anyway.
More recently, I’ve noticed that my observation of the breath causes it to change in some way. I’m thinking that subconsciously I make it harsher or stronger so that it’s easier to observe. I can’t seem to just let the breath arise and allow much mind to ‘rest’ on it. It just seems to want to grab the breath and control it in some way.
This problem has caused me to give up meditation for many years at a time because it was just too stressful and difficult…”
And my reply was:
“Your problem is quite common among Westerners. In fact, I too had it happen to me in the early days. I put it down to our habits of control. We try to control whatever we pay attention to.
Because as you said, when we’re not paying attention to it, the breath is fine – relaxed and deep. But when you begin to meditate and pay attention to it, suddenly it’s as if you’re ordering it to march in step to some expectation of ‘how the breath should be’ – forcing it to be deep and regular. Forcing it to be ‘relaxed’.
The breath, when left to itself, is as changeable as the weather – as it should be. So when you assert an unnatural kind of symmetry it, this creates an uncomfortable reactive loop which ties us up in knots around the simple act of breathing.
So forget the breath for the moment – I cured myself of this insidious habit by spending time working on my attitude to the breath – by re-examining how I relate to the breath in meditation.
The way I did this was, every time I found the breath tightening in response to my attention, I would immediately let go of the main object and expand the area for my attention outwards to the whole body – feeling the whole body sitting, and feeling the breath within the body.
In response, the breath always loosens and relaxes, at which point I gently pull my attention back onto it … and it it begins to tighten again, once again I’ll let it go and go back contemplate the entire body.
In this, it’s a bit like training a horse to be ridden – slowly coaxing my attention to learn how to ride the breath without dominating it. Teaching it to observe without an agenda – to simply feel the breath move without trying to make it behave differently.”
Now, I know I have addressed this particular problem before in previous posts. But after I wrote this, I got to thinking about ‘the bigger picture’, that this particular problem sits within – an overview or attitude that is essential to efficient meditation.
And it can be summed up in one word:
Put simply, and speaking generally, meditation must be practiced as an act of expansion. Otherwise it isn’t meditation.
But let me explain from the beginning.
As I see it, there are basically two states of being in a life – two ways of view and approach. We are either in expansion, or we are in contraction. That is, we tend to move between expanding outwards into the life experience, or contracting away from it.
We are in an expansive state when we exercise love, happiness, kindness, generosity, innocence, surrender, acceptance, tranquility, empathy and so on.
Whenever we expand outwards we forget our limited sense of conditioned self. In expanding beyond this constructed self we become part of something greater – whether as part of a loving couple, or in the comradeship of a group, or life itself and the universal flow.
To expand is to not hold back, but to give out – to accept, to act outwards without fear.
Contractive states are the opposite. They are fear, anxiety, control, repression, resentment, loneliness, envy, greed, neediness, defensiveness … you get the idea.
‘Contractedness’ includes all the ‘tense’ states – the many and various manifestations of fear.
When we contract we become separate from everything – essentially imprisoned within our conditioned self, trapped inside the conditioned delusions we have developed throughout our life.
Contracted people need a lot – they build walls, both real and metaphorical, they react defensively and spend a lot of energy on hiding. Even within themselves they need things to fill the loneliness and isolation they feel, to insulate themselves from the things they fear or hate; to help them forget all the things that make them so anxious.
It’s a pity that in general, the kind of culture we live in encourages contractedness. Indeed, the entire spinning machine of our modern civilization depends on us living in a contracted state of being.
A lot of resources are spent on creating contractedness in people. Governments and corporations use anger, fear and divisiveness to guide and control people. Advertising elicits envy, fear, greed and so on – because contractedness creates need – need to consume; need to compete, fear, fight, desire. And all this makes it such that, in the average urban life, there is not much that engenders expansiveness, unless we actually take command and create it ourself.
And this is where we come to meditation.
Meditation trains us to expand instead of contract.
Indeed, it is impossible to meditate efficiently if we don’t learn to let go and expand.
One of the most common mistakes most people make when they first come to meditation is to treat the act of meditation the same as everything else we do.
When we first begin we try hard to excel at it – to succeed, to achieve, to win. We bring so much desire and ambition to meditation – and I’ve heard it all, students wanting to ‘become enlightened’; to ‘achieve detachment’ … and so on. Most people, including myself when I began, come to meditation wanting something, or are intent on getting something.
As such, just as we have been trained to do in our life, we set about ‘getting’ what we want – ‘achieving our goals’. And I can tell you now, from experience, that there is no surer way to create suffering in meditation than to start trying to ‘get’ things from it.
Because as I said, the stillness that is heart of meditation, is by necessity a completely expansive state. It can only arise from expansiveness.
So when we go at the meditation methods like a bull at a gate, trying to ‘get’ things, we are instantly separated from this stillness by having turned meditation into something to be subjugated to our will – a contracted process completely at odds with the gentle act of love that good meditation is.
The conditioned mind is like a child. It responds to love and does not like being bullied.
So trying to ‘still the mind’ by sheer force only closes the mind up, making it fight back and creating tension in the body.
And so it is, that no matter how energetically we try to meditate, or how disciplined we might be, if there is no love in our meditation we will suffer – either that or sink into a desperate unconsciousness which many people misinterpreted as ‘a deep state’.
It is unfortunate that, as I said before, this heavy handed ‘forcing’ of meditation comes so naturally to us Westerners, who see everything in terms of ‘success’ and ‘winning’. As such, it is normal that most of us will struggle when we first try to meditate, and suffer in a way that many Asian practitioners do not understand.
I think I spent the first four years on my training learning the simple act of accepting and letting go – and that time was characterized by struggle. And all the Thai monks around me never understood exactly how I managed to tie myself in knots over the simple act of sitting still.
Because in the end, that is what meditation is – to sit still, or be still, and be happy to be still – something so simple, yet it seemed utterly beyond me, because I could not accept the actuality of my constantly changing momentary experience, and expand into it. I kept trying to control it, change it, pacify it, make it match some idea in my head of what meditation was supposed to feel like, or be.
Anything but accept, and expand into reality as it was.
Because when we meditate, that is exactly what we need to do.
We practice expanding into our conditioned Self as it is – as it has become, without fear or judgement. We accept the various nuances of suffering we feel – the natural consequences of having lived the live we’ve lived.
In this way we practice union with our conditioned Self on its own terms – by being aware of the real-time sensations that are the language of Self, and how they change – treating our conditioned self in a similar way to that of a loving parent with their child. We become a good friend to our Self – a lover with our beloved – choose whichever analogy you like, it all adds up to the same thing.
So, if you are finding meditation difficult, perhaps review your attitudes to your self, and work at changing them. Meditate as an act of love instead of coercion and you might find your mind and body responding like children who are loved – softening, becoming playful instead of unmanageable, changing with you instead of against you.
And on a practical level, perhaps consider these strategies:
KEEP A BALANCE BETWEEN ATTENTION AND AWARENESS.
Remember, there should always be two parts to your perception: Your attention, which interacts with things – and awareness, which knows the wholeness of everything around the attention. These two qualities should always be present in equal measure (at least until the attention disappears back into awareness).
A well balanced mind allocates an equal amount of energy to both attention and awareness. So when you bring your attention to the breath, don’t concentrate so hard that awareness disappears. Keep your attention light and affectionate – such that there is still a passive awareness of everything else around you as you concentrate.
After all, meditation is not a closed, contracted and unconscious state – rather it is a bright and aware state – an expansive state, in which, though the attention is still (on the breath), the awareness is bright and knowing.
So whenever you focus on the main object of the breath, don’t get too close to it. Always focus from a distance, maintaining a peripheral awareness of your whole body and the environment around you.
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING.
Treat meditation as a kind of communion with the conditioned Self as it is at any one time. Accept your Self’s terms – listen to the body speak to you with sensations. Watch the weather patterns of the mind without engaging – notice whether it is confused, fuggy, hyperactive, focused, calm.
And at all times, maintain an almost affectionate attitude to this conditioned being that you are.
‘Affection’ – such a beautiful word – no control, only affectionate and detached interest.
REMEMBER, THERE ARE NO ENEMIES IN MEDITATION.
Thoughts are not the enemy; pain is not the enemy.
Both of these things are commonly seen as annoyances in our life, so it is our habit to try to suppress or control them in some way. One of the prime lessons of meditation is to learn that pain and thinking have a right to exist. And in fact, will always exist to some degree or other, because they are natural conditions of being alive.
So it is imperative that you accept them.
Ironically, you will find that the more you accept thinking and pain, the less they will appear as suffering.
NEVER DO BATTLE WITH ANYTHING IN MEDITATION.
If something takes the attention away from the breath, do not fight it, or try to suppress it.
Rather, regard it with affectionate disinterest, then remove your attention from it so it either fades away in its own time, or flutters about in the awareness until it naturally disappears.
ALLOW THINGS TO CHANGE.
If tranquility is here, don’t expect it to stay that way. Don’t expect to be calm, or peaceful as you meditate.
If you feel anxious or tense, then allow the discomfort to be there. Accept whatever is happening with the same affectionate awareness you give to everything else, and in time it will change.
Tranquility will disappear, and be replaced by something else. As will the discomfort.
Accept whatever is happening now. Always. Learn to stay in flow with the weather patterns of life.
And if the mind begins lapsing into habits of resistance, reaction or complaint, then simply bring the attention back to the main object of the breath and start again. The mind may continue muttering and whinging in your peripheral awareness, but so long as your attention is on the breath, eventually change will happen.
Change is your friend.
So, to conclude, the general rule of expansiveness in meditation is:
‘KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW, ACCEPT IT AND LET IT GO, TO CHANGE AS IT WILL.’
As you practice this in meditation it slowly becomes a new habit in life. And as the habit gets stronger with practice, the letting go becomes easier, and faster.
With thinking for example – when we first begin to meditate, thinking is a terrible problem because our attention cannot detach – it reacts to everything we think. But as we practice ‘knowing, accepting and letting go’ we find, though the mind still thinks, as our attention gets better at letting go, the thoughts disappear more quickly.
And the more we practice, we increasingly find thoughts disappearing so fast it’s almost as if they are disappearing as soon as they have arisen – as if there is no thinking at all. The end effect is a kind of ambient silence n the mind, like the sounds of a forest or ocean waves.
The only other comment I have to make is, the expansiveness of meditation should not stop when we finish meditation and stand up.
Every expansive action we make in our lives, where we give kindness, or generosity, or acknowledge someone else with a smile – any expansive act lights up our entire physiology, relaxing the body and causing pleasure, however subtle.
So meditation is where we practice expansiveness, but our life should be where we apply it. And we’ll find, through the law of cause and effect, that through the smallest actions, we are capable of changing the destiny of other people, even the world.
So try to make sure as many actions as possible come from an expansive spirit.
Thanks for reading this far … it’s been a long, long post.
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