Layers of the Onion
Sometimes meditation can very confusing, even infuriating. Like any skill, as your facility develops, you experience many apparent obstacles to your progress, each bringing new challenges. Each time you think you’ve got a handle on what you’re doing, a new problem seems to arise. And the mistake we can make at those times is to think we’re doing something wrong.
But we’re not.
It’s simply the re-balancing process of meditation at work.
My first teacher, Acharn Thawee called it ‘layers of the onion’.
He said: ‘Meditation is like cutting into an onion. The top layers feel coarse and harsh, like the outer skins of the onion. But as you keep meditating, peeling away each layer, deeper layers get revealed. And the deeper you go, the softer and more subtle the layers become. Until you get to the centre. And that’s when you find there was no onion at all.’
So you see that, in being still – sitting with your attention contemplating the breath – in the space that’s created, the mind and body automatically take the opportunity to shed layers of old retained anxiety that have since become habitual – muscle tensions, suppressed emotional reactions, old worries, thought formations and so on.
For brevity’s sake I’ll call it ‘stuff’.
Throughout our life we gather layers of this stuff like old scars – like an onion growing larger. It’s inevitable – a natural part of life. And when we begin to meditate, or practice yoga, or even take a very peaceful holiday where we do nothing, these layers, which have been kept compressed by the ceaseless activity of our life, naturally rise into our awareness. It’s a natural process of mind and body using the space that’s appeared, to rebalance and heal themselves.
And we experience the appearance of these layers as anxiety, or aching muscles, or we feel emotional or depressed for no reason – the layers can appear as anything, even sudden illness.
Incidentally, this is why a lot of people get sick when they go on holiday, or even die when they retire – because in the sudden space that’s been created after a life of high activity, as the layers of compressed ‘stuff’ rise up, all kinds of mental and physical stress appears.
It’s also why we age so badly if we never take account of the accumulated garbage of our life, as it sits within us. When our life becomes a constant process of gaining stuff but never letting it go, the hidden tensions we’ve accumulated in our body distort our face and musculature, and make us susceptible to illnesses of all kinds, and we age badly.
So let’s say you’re practicing meditation every day. As you train the attention to disengage from your usual activities, various pleasant experiences and unpleasant experiences will arise alternately in a kind of wave pattern. One week you might have tranquility and calm and you think meditation is easy.
Then you might find, the next week meditation seems impossible – your body seems full of aches and pains and your mind is flooded with thinking, and maybe you feel quite emotional. Many people think they’ve ‘lost the touch’ that point, or just that meditation is too hard, and they give up.
But let’s say you keep going, soldiering on through the discomfort.
You’ll find at some point, maybe the following week, meditation becomes tranquil again – or perhaps it takes on another quality. These are ‘the layers of the onion’. They usually appear in the meditation as ‘blocks’ or ‘problems’ – that’s how you’ll instinctively interpret them anyway. Which is understandable, because what seemed easy before has suddenly become difficult. Like any skill or exercise, we’ve think we’ve hit a wall – as if we’ve lost our ability to meditate, and that can be very distressing.
So, at those times it helps to reframe our view – to see these seeming problems not as obstacles, but as opportunities. Because indeed, that’s what they are. Each pain, emotion or feeling of anxiety, or even sleepiness where before there was none – all of these layers are opportunities.
It took me a long time to realize this.
In 2009 I went to Sri Lanka to practice with the Venerable Kidagammulle Pemasiri Thera, at Kanduboda Meditation Centre, just outside of Colombo.
Having ordained as a young man, Pemasiri had practiced all kinds of meditation methods in many places beside his home country – India, Burma, Thailand – and he synthesized the different views into an intuitive understanding of the process’s within Vipassana meditation. So, unlike many other teachers whose view was determined by Buddhist convention, he taught through an experiential knowledge of meditation and how it affects mind and body.
On this retreat, I was struggling with a strange phenomenon which would appear about thirty minutes into each meditation. My entire upper body would feel as if it had turned too concrete, and I couldn’t breathe – my breathing would become so shallow I’d have to pant to get enough air and I would begin sweating and feeling panic.
Strange thing was, however, the moment I finished meditation, all the pain, tension and panic would instantly disappear.
So in the daily interview, I described this to Pemasiri Thera as if a problem had arisen – as if I had lost my way and I was looking to him to give me a solution, so meditation could ‘improve’. Because of course, that’s how it felt.
‘So what do you want from me?’ he said, smiling mischievously.
‘When this phenomenon happens I can’t do anything but sit and suffer,’ I said. ‘I feel like I’m wasting my time, so I want to find a way past it so I can meditate.’
‘What, you want meditation to be all nice and pretty and easy again … is that what you think good meditation is?’
‘This suffering you are experiencing, it is not a waste of time. It is not wrong for it to happen, you understand? Rather, it is a valuable opportunity! An opportunity to be released from something that has always been within you.’
‘But I can’t concentrate, I can’t breathe, I feel like I’m just sitting wasting my time …’
Waving his hand dismissively he exclaimed:
‘No!! You are never wasting your time in Vipassana. The suffering is the most valuable work you do. You are not meditating to have lovely meditations … these are not valuable at all! The happy meditations are just waiting for more suffering to appear!’
He paused, then went on.
‘The purpose of meditation is not to become good at meditation, but to become good at life. You are not meditating to have lovely meditations. You are meditating to have a lovely life. So remember this! When you let go of suffering as you meditate, it is a little less suffering you will have to bear in your life. Okay?’
I nodded as I realized I had always known the truth of what he was saying – indeed, I had written just that in my books, but in the thick of things I’d forgotten that the skill we learn in meditation is not meditation itself – but what appears out of it.
Pemasiri Thera went on:
‘So now, when your body turns to concrete and you cannot breathe and you are panicking, greet these things like friends, not enemies. Let them in, relax with them. They won’t kill you, you know that. You have seen how they disappear when you finish meditation. So greet them like the illusions they are, and they will pass away like all layers of karma-vipaka (cause and effect) within you.’
So I did as he said.
As soon as body began to turn to concrete, instead of panicking, I relaxed around it and allowed it to become as intense as it wanted. And the pain grew and grew, until suddenly it vanished. And a thought passed through my head, ‘another layer gone’.
The concrete feeling never returned – because the layers, once they have been borne and passed away, never come back.
So … my advice?
Try to refrain from judging meditation by the experience you are having. If suffering arises in any form during meditation, it means the process is working. Mind and body are using the opportunity of stillness (however tenuous you think it might be) to re-balance, throw off old tensions and heal.
You know what they say, no pain no gain.
The challenge is to accept whatever discomfort arises – allow it to happen (even encourage it to get more intense) and put all you focus on letting go of your reactions to it. That’s what the method of ‘mental noting’ is there for – it’s a tool to keep you aware of what is happening, while at the same time preventing you from lapsing into a reaction.
Remember, it’s the mountain you’re climbing, not the road.
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Interesting that you mention the layers could be sudden illness. I was in a pretty deep meditative state Fri night and was experiencing something quite strange. Internally, it felt like the center of my body or spine was humming or vibrating up to the center of my brain. I kept my mind quiet and just focused on breath and observed the sensations. I had two sessions like this on Friday both about 1 hour long. In the second session the humming intensified and eventually fizzled out, so I stopped. Then came Saturday/Sunday and I got really sick, was bed ridden. Checked with the doc today and he said I might have had a minor flu.
Could it be related? I did kiss my gf Thursday night, but she is not sick.