Meditation the Journey
” The things that trouble our spirits are within us already. In meditation, we must face them, accept them, and set them aside one by one.
I was thumbing through a popular tabloid news paper on the weekend, and in the middle pages, in the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ section, I noticed another article on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. The central theme of the article was ‘the meditation experience’, which it described in terms of ‘calm’ and ‘peace’, and ‘clearing the mind’ by developing ‘single pointed concentration’.
I read this with an increasing sense of despair, because yet again, it glibly reinforced the misconceptions and myths that have cursed meditation ever since it was imported from Asia a few hundred years ago. This focus on the ‘meditation experience’ as a pre-requisite to any transformation that might occur is incredibly destructive – yet it preoccupies almost the entire conversation around meditation in the West.
But, I suppose, as I think further, I understand how it happened. The imperatives of our mercantile culture, in which everything is reduced to its most saleable aspect, always prevail – and meditation has, like everything else in our world, become a product.
The origins of meditation in Asia were essentially and solely spiritual – people meditated to progress along a path to enlightenment. And enlightenment was commonly viewed as the ultimate aspiration in a life. As such, anyone embarking on the difficult journey to enlightenment was universally supported, and meditation was taught freely. The community supported the monks, wandering sadhus and holy-men, simply because they recognised and respected the incredible commitment and inner strength it required to embark on such an endeavour.
Meditation was simply a means to an end – not an end in itself. And the ‘meditation experience’ was not considered significant, except as an indicator of progress, and what needed next to be done. It was accepted that, as the meditator began and progressed, they would meet aspects of their sense of self that were painful, confronting or simply deceptive – problems along the way that would need solutions.
And the many methods and strategies that evolved throughout the history of meditation, became tools to be used to navigate through those various problems.
Then meditation was imported to the West.
And along with many other imports from ‘the exotic east’, in line with our habit of commodifying everything, the most marketable aspect of meditation was the possibility of ‘an experience’, and ‘the getting of calm’. Key terms were used – bliss, tranquillity, oneness, natural high, and so on. Instead of being a powerful medium of self realisation, an incredible journey into what we’re made of, meditation became simply another therapy among many to soothe our pain and fill the holes we felt in our hearts.
Essentially, meditation was reduced to being a product – a kind of natural Aspirin or Prozac. Either that or a spiritual sideshow in the carnival of sideshows that became ‘The New Age’.
People bought the product in the same way they bought pills or a massage, and they wanted what was on the brochure – to stop thinking and be instantly relaxed and calm.
Result being, the entire premise of meditation practice switched from self realisation to self-indulgence and the possibility of an easy escape.
For sure, there are so many extraordinary experiences that can be had during meditation, in which it’s as if we are poking a hole through our personal reality, to peep into what we have hitherto never experienced. But what nobody tells you is that these experiences cannot be had with a couple of half hour sessions a day. One has to meditate intensively over a long period of time, to poke the holes through the walls of our life conditioning.
And even then these glimpses of the unknown are of no use.
The most useful aspect of meditation is the slow grind to change the stuff we’re made of – the web of habits and conditioned reactions that form the prison we live in. And the habits of a lifetime are not changed by an ‘experience’.
Life habits can only be changed through persistence, tenacity and practice, using the various methods that meditation makes available to us.
So at the risk of being boring, I’m going to say it again. The meditation experience means nothing – so please resist giving significance or meaning to it.
And, more importantly, resist the temptation to judge your practice, or your ability to meditate, on the quality of your meditation experience.
If you do this, you’ll only create failure – because no matter how intoxicating meditation might be right now, a time will come when you will encounter some block, or emotion, or a point where your mind will rebel against the changes that meditation is creating, and you will suffer.
And if you’re focussed on the experience, you will assume you can no longer meditate, and you will give up. In monastery life, it’s called ‘the rolling the mat’ stage – where monks roll up their meditation mat and give up because its all become too hard.
The irony is, it’s these apparent obstacles that appear in meditation that are where the real training and progress is to be had. As my last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri said, ‘All the fizzy blissy stuff is just waiting for the real work to begin.’
Really, when you boil it down, a serious practice of meditation is simply problem solving. Its a long expedition through the jungle of the self, and the distant destination you’re headed for, is the finely balance tranquillity of stillness.
And all the so-called problems you meet are when one or other of our clingy, competitive, fearful, desirous, excitable life habits prevents us from falling into the stillness we unconsciously pine for, but have forgotten how to access.
So you’re meditating to learn how to let go of everything, to clear a space for stillness to appear.
Stillness within the storm of being.
And once you’ve developed a relationship with stillness in your core, you become a bit like an oak tree in the storm of life. And even as your branches whip and sway, or break – even when the winds of life strip away your leaves – with stillness at our core, the trunk remains stable, still and strong within the chaos.
So as you meditate, forget what you want.
Pay attention to the journey you’re on.
Treat each meditation as an adventure – an expedition through the raw stuff of what you are, and what you’ve become. Not what you think, but what you feel – the swirl of sensations that you are, around the slow rhythmic pulse of the breath.
Feel all the sensations in your body as if it were your friend.
Smile inwardly at the mischievous tricks your mind plays.
Feel whatever feelings arise and let them pass on through your awareness, as your attention remains poised on the breath.
And some of what will happen will be incredibly pleasant, and some will be uncomfortable.
So, meet it all with the same quality of mind – with fascination, and compassion for this organism you have become.
Because all the chaotic stuff as it passes through is simply mind and body in process – healing and reorganising themselves like any field left fallow, or any forest left to itself. All things heal themselves and find balance if given stillness.
Each meditation, as you use the methods to deal with each obstacle, no matter how chaotic the experience is, will leave you just a little lighter, and more inspired.
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Thank you again for a valuable post.
“Stillness within the storm of being.” Isn’t that ultimately what we all aspire for. But I have begun realising that it is damaging when I keep looking at that goal of stillness. I lose track of the present. So, thanks to your guidance, these days, I just meditate with no expectations. It is liberating.
Another thing I have recently realised is that planning to meditate for a certain amount of time undoubtedly gives you discipline, but that can get distracting as well. If I got disturbed midway, or wasn’t able to sit that long..I got frustrated. So, I let go of that expectation as well. I think when we want to meditate, we don’t need externaly imposed conditions such as duration, etc.
Thank you for your guidance.
It’s good that you meditate without expectations – essential in fact. The paradox is, the less you expect, the more fluid and easy the journey becomes. The other thing I’d mention is, I found when I re-framed my view of life-experience and stopped dividing it into pleasant and unpleasant – what I liked or not liked – everything became interesting, even pain and misfortune. Everything became simply different frequencies of life – different textures of the process of living. So I threw it all out – my expectation of happiness (which had been very strong when I was young), my need for things to be right, and so on. I threw it all out and life became ever more a fascinating journey. And, of course, so did meditation. And that’s when everything changed.
I both agree with what you said about setting a time, and I disagree as well. The conditioned mind is a seductive creature – and if we don’t have a set time, it can easily weasel us into giving up when things get a bit testing. Added to which, it’s one more small niggling thought “have I meditated long enough?” that we don’t need.
But … it’s up to you. Whatever works for you.
I’m really glad you wrote this. I was raised Buddhist, and meditation was just something we did, akin, I guess, to how Christians and other religions pray. When I went off to college (this was the 70s), I was startled to meet people who said they meditated to control stress, gain self-confidence, even get better grades. I knew those were benefits to meditating, but it never occurred to me to meditate in order to gain those things. Now, I see meditation tips appearing on career coaching blogs and in business magazines. I’m glad people have found peace and sanity in the practice of meditation: but a few advocates talk about it as if it was like working out in a gym, a habit you cultivate for health reasons.
I don’t meditate as much as I would like to, but I like the suggestion you made earlier, that one just checks in with one’s body, feeling where there is tension and letting it go. It’s a nice way to “be there” while sitting in traffic or waiting in a crowded airport boarding area.
I’m glad you connected with what I wrote. It’s something I feel very strongly about, all the misleading mythologising, and theorising and glorification of meditation – which is, after all, such a simple thing. Before all it’s spiritual or esoteric connotations, accessing stillness is a skill. That’s all. Moreover, it’s a skill which I’m sure every other creature on the planet does so instinctively, they don’t even know its a skill. Nor do they have to meditate to get there – they simply go there whenever they want.
But we humans, with our clunky technology and complex thinking and precious emotions, have lost touch with stillness – so we have to meditate, simply to re-train the mind and body to be still when there’s nothing to do. And that’s all meditation is – a set of tools we use to retrain the mind and body to have what should be our natural right.
And meditation, if treated as a skill, pure and simple, responds by becoming a clear task in a day – and through mindfulness, it gradually infuses itself so profoundly into our sense of self, that eventually, we don’t have to meditate, or ‘be mindful’. We just are. Like any cat, dog, bird, reptile or insect.
Be here now … such a beautiful set of words.