Meditating From the Source

my-pictures-and-knee-010-001A while ago I was doing an online session with a meditator, and we were talking generally about what it is to practice meditation, and how difficult it can be to maintain a practice in the kind of culture we live in – and he made a very good point.

He said, ‘I keep wondering if maybe we’ve lost our way with meditation in the West. I mean, so many people are talking about it and there’s so many books and different views of the same thing. With all these different views it’s hard to know who to trust, and which is the right way. So I get confused sometimes.”

I thought about what he said and realised he was right and I just hadn’t seen it.

I was lucky – many years ago I decided on which path I wanted to take through the jungle of meditation and went straight to the source. And though, in the four temples I was trained in, I practised with four different teachers, and their methods differed slightly, nevertheless what they taught me was consistent because it all came from the same place.

But I could see how, in the current environment, with so much information around, and so many different views, it can get a little confusing.

So I decided to take him to the source.

Of the four teachers I worked with, my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, gave me the most simple and practical understanding of meditation. Unfortunately, he only wrote one book before he died – ‘Practicing Insight On Your Own’ so there is not much of his teachings that is not second hand, either from me, or his proteges, Phra Manfred (since disrobed) and Mae Che Brigitte.

But there was one teacher, though I never had an opportunity to practice with him, whose view was so clear and imbued with common sense that it was utterly dependable as a guide through the wildlands of meditation.

His name was Acharn Chah, and of all of his generation, I think he was the best. Luckily, he was surrounded by acolytes who recorded a lot of his extraordinary teachings as audio, video and as transcripts of his Dhamma talks, so there is a lot of his wisdom available online. It’s well worth spending time with, particularly if you’re looking for a clear view of the meditation process. Whenever I find myself a little lost, Acharn Chah’s words never fail to shine a light on the way ahead.

The most extensive repository of his teachings can be found HERE.

It was here I directed the meditator I mentioned before – and I strongly recommend it to anyone. It’s a place to go whenever you lose your way.

Following is a selection of quotes from some of his talks and then a video about the forest tradition he comes from – always lucid, to the point, and inspiring.

And if you’ve got time, I strongly recommend you read the entire collection of his teachings which can be found HERE.

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“Whatever happens, you endure, because that is the way it is. For example, when you begin to practice samādhi you want peace and tranquillity. But you don’t get any. You don’t get any because you have never practiced this way. Your heart says, ”I’ll sit until I attain tranquillity”. But when tranquillity doesn’t arise, you suffer. And when there is suffering, you get up and run away! To practice like this can not be called ”developing the heart”. It’s called ”desertion”. Instead of indulging in your moods, you train yourself with the Dhamma of the Buddha. Lazy or diligent, you just keep on practicing. Don’t you think that this is a better way?”

“The way of the heart is like this. Sometimes there are good thoughts, sometimes there are bad thoughts. The heart is deceitful. Don’t trust it! Instead look straight at the conditions of the heart itself. Accept them as they are. They’re just as they are. Whether it’s good or evil or whatever, that’s the way it is. If you don’t grab hold of these conditions, then they don’t become anything more or less than what they already are. If we grab hold we’ll get bitten and will then suffer.”

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“Nothing happens immediately, so in the beginning we can’t see any results from our practice. This is like the example I have often given you of the man who tries to make fire by rubbing two sticks of wood together. He says to himself, ”They say there’s fire here”. and he begins rubbing energetically. He’s very impetuous. He rubs on and on but his impatience doesn’t end. He wants to have that fire. He keeps wanting to have that fire, but the fire doesn’t come. So he gets discouraged and stops to rest for awhile.

He starts again but the going is slow, so he rests again. By then the heat has disappeared; he didn’t keep at it long enough. He rubs and rubs until he tires and then he stops altogether. Not only is he tired, but he becomes more and more discouraged until he gives up completely. ”There’s no fire here!” Actually he was doing the work, but there wasn’t enough heat to start a fire. The fire was there all the time but he didn’t carry on to the end. This sort of experience causes the meditator to get discouraged in his practice, and so he restlessly changes from one practice to another. And this sort of experience is also similar to our own practice. It’s the same for everybody.”

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“…. both happiness and unhappiness are not peaceful states. The Buddha taught to let go of both of them. This is right practice. This is the Middle Way.

These words ‘the Middle Way’ do not refer to our body and speech, they refer to the mind. When a mental impression which we don’t like arises, it affects the mind and there is confusion. When the mind is confused, when it’s ‘shaken up’, this is not the right way. When a mental impression arises which we like, the mind goes to indulgence in pleasure – that’s not the way either.

We people don’t want suffering, we want happiness. But in fact happiness is just a refined form of suffering. Suffering itself is the coarse form. You can compare them to a snake. The head of the snake is unhappiness, the tail of the snake is happiness. The head of the snake is really dangerous, it has the poisonous fangs. If you touch it, the snake will bite straight away. But never mind the head, even if you go and hold onto the tail, it will turn around and bite you just the same, because both the head and the tail belong to the one snake.

In the same way, both happiness and unhappiness, or pleasure and sadness, arise from the same parent – wanting. So when you’re happy the mind isn’t peaceful. It really isn’t! For instance, when we get the things we like, such as wealth, prestige, praise or happiness, we become pleased as a result. But the mind still harbours some uneasiness because we’re afraid of losing it. That very fear isn’t a peaceful state. Later on we may actually lose that thing and then we really suffer.

Thus, if you aren’t aware, even if you’re happy, suffering is imminent. It’s just the same as grabbing the snake’s tail – if you don’t let go it will bite. So whether it’s the snake’s tail or its head, that is, wholesome or unwholesome conditions, they’re all just characteristics of the Wheel of Existence, of endless change.”

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If you’d like a more comprehensive list of Acharn Chah’s quotes, I have compiled a pdf (about 8 pages). It’s a wonderful resource to have, to refer to. I always find something to set of a little explosion of understanding in my head. You can download it from HERE

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LINKS

The Brain Changes Itself

Meditation is not a panacea or any kind of quick fix. Nor is it simply a relaxation exercise, as it’s often marketed.

When we meditate, we’re training the mind to be more efficient. We’re training it to be more in command of its processes and less cluttered with superfluous thinking. And this training is long and subtle, and sometimes quite difficult – there’s no way of avoiding that, regardless of what the commercial media tells you about meditation.

As such, it’s very valuable to understand the processes within meditation – to know what you’re actually doing when you sit for long periods of time, patiently altering the way you apply your attention – which is one of the purposes of this blog.

And one of the most valuable pieces of knowledge to cling to, is the clear fact that, in patiently sitting, and mindfully altering the way you use your attention, you’re not just changing mental habits – you’re creating an incredible physical transformation of the most important organ in your body.

This physical transformation is called ‘neuroplasticity’, and it refers to  the brain’s ability to constantly reorganize itself by forming new neural connections in response to the way it’s being used, and the habits that are being enacted.

And this physical dynamic is particularly intensive during meditation.

With that in mind, I strongly recommend you watch the following documentary, based on a fascinating book by Norman Doidge – ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’.

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LINKS

Don’t Fight to Meditate.

img_0349-001Hi Roger .. I’ve been learning to meditate and I’ve been to a number of teachers who keep instructing me to concentrate on the breath. It is supposed to relax me and make me calm. For sure in the first few minutes it does. It’s relaxing to close my eyes and be with my breath.

But I find, as time passes, the breath tightens up and meditation begins to feel like a prison and it becomes extremely unpleasant.

I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.

Thanks in advance,

Brian

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When I first began to meditate, I experienced something similar. Whenever I focussed my attention on the breath, either of two things would happen -either like yourself, my body would tighten up around me, or I’d drift into a disorienting unconsciousness. Some time later I realised what the problem was – and I’m wondering if it might be what’s causing your own problem.

Speaking for myself, I’d turned meditation into a kind of competition. I was channelling all my energy into a kind of competitive battle to ‘own meditation’. To win. To become a fantastic meditator. To progress.

To this end, I focussed on the breath in an almost muscular way, trying to fix my attention to it with ever more effort. As a result, awareness slowly closed down and my body tensed up with the effort, and a claustrophobic kind of mindset took over – with the result that I either closed down by falling asleep, or sat inside a body that felt like a block of concrete. Either way, it was extremely uncomfortable.

In this, I think the habits of my Western culture were showing themselves. And I see similar indications of this conditioning in the attitudes of many of the meditators I’ve worked with over the years – as sense that meditation is another skill that must be mastered. As such, they bring a muscularity to meditating that runs totally counter to the spirit of it – and only end up tying themselves up in knots.

And it’s understandable.

From the time we’re born, we in the West are instilled with the spirit of competition and the urge to win. It’s a kind of cultural anxiousness which permeates even our most benign interactions. Even in social situations, we are covertly competing with one another. Winning and competing is a huge part of the social conversation, and it’s propagated by the media, our schools and workplaces and almost every aspect of our lives. In this, the goal is everything – we do things with an imagined outcome in mind, then strive to make it happen.

And then we come to meditation. And suddenly everything we’ve learnt is wrong.

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So let’s go back to the beginning.

For sure, there is a goal that’s implied in meditation. The goal is to learn how to be still, and create a relationship with stillness.

By stillness, I don’t mean unconsciousness. I mean conscious and calm disengagement.

So we’re using the meditation methods to practice disengaging our attention from all the things it usually reacts to – desires, fears, opinions, pain, emotional reactions, gossip, memories and so on.

This complex landscape of triggers are where our attention usually spends most of its time. From waking to sleep, it’s used to bouncing from one event to the other, creating all kinds of hormonal changes in the body as each reaction it generates blooms in the mind. As stressful as this unrelenting excitement is, we view it as ‘normal’ because that’s what we’re used to, so we don’t really notice the effects until its too late.

So our purpose in meditation is to create a kind of ‘reactive silence’ in mind and body.

To this end, we use the meditation methods to train the attention to gently disengage from everything that usually stimulates us. In this way we enter a paradoxical state where, though mind and body are still active, and we’re aware of everything that’s happening inside and outside of us, our attention is utterly disengaged from it all – either resting on the breath or, in more absorbed state, merged back into the awareness.

Either way, no reactions are being generated so, in mind and body, we are still.

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But here we see some confusion arising from the use of this word ‘stillness’. The word implies nothing is happening. It implies complete silence – no activity.

But stillness is actually quite an active state. It’s only our meddlesome attention that has gone still – for the rest of mind and body, things go on – the only difference is, our meddlesome attention is not interfering any more.

With the attention still, the mind and body naturally turn their energies to ‘housework’. In this, they take the opportunity to re-organise and re-balance themselves. Recent experiences and reactions get filed into the unconscious. Concepts and ideas currently in process in the mind are intuitively refined. And all this happens without the attention needing to be present.

To the meditating mind this ‘housework’ shows itself as shifting clouds of thinking, memories and daydreams passing through awareness as we meditate. If we don’t pay attention to this mental stuff, it all passes away as quickly as it arises.

In the body this clearing process is felt as changing landscapes of sensations – aches, tingles, itches coming and going. And feelings – happiness, peacefulness, or sadness or anger, or even boredom. And if we don’t react, but keep meditating through them, we see they pass away quite quickly.

This is mind and body doing what they naturally, intuitively do. Left to themselves, they devote themselves clearing and reorganising themselves.

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As I said, it is our attention is the key to this cleansing/reorganising process – which is why it is only the attention we are concerned with when we meditate. It’s our attention we’re training to be still.

We’re not interfering with awareness. If anything, as the attention becomes more still, we will become more aware. We become aware of deeper substrates of thinking and emotional undercurrents, and deeper tensions and imbalances in the body, which can feel quite uncomfortable at first.

Commonly, to the inexperienced meditator, these things can be misleading – it can seem as if meditation ‘isn’t working’, because, understandably, the attention becomes more and more restless in this uncomfortable environment.

And this is when our competitive spirit can kick in and create even more problems. We think if we just try harder, we can get the calm and peace we’re trying to win. So we begin using brute strength to bury our attention in the breath.

But the more muscular we become, the more our awareness shrinks.

And meditation, instead of being the open, unconditionally aware and accepting environment it is supposed to be, becomes a prison in which we lock ourselves.

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Try to always remember, the game you’re playing here is not meditation – it’s stillness. So you’re not trying to become a good meditator. You’re simply reaching for stillness, however it comes – and meditation methods are an array of tools to help you.

So don’t fixate on the breath if it’s only making you tighten up.

The breath is simply a convenient main object for the attention to rest on. It’s bland (not much to think about) and it’s constant and easy to feel. Also, the breath is in the centre of the body, which helps us learn the delicate balancing act between paying attention to the breath while maintaining passive awareness of the rest of the body. Other than that, there is no special significance with the breath.

So as I said, if, as you rest your attention on the breath, you feel your competitive spirit kicking in, and you begin tightening up in a tussle with to keep your attention there, then let go of the breath.

Go to the body sensations. The whole body.

Pay attention to the sensual shape of the sitting body.

And if it helps, note ‘sitting, sitting’ as you do this, and just feel the body. Feel the layers of sensations of the skin, the muscles and organs. Feel the weight of the body, and the mass. Feel the tensions that have built up and allow them to let go if you can.

 

When you are paying attention to bare sensations – as they are and without thinking about them or reacting to them – you are in stillness. It doesn’t matter how painful the sensations might be – if you simply feel them as they are, and give them all your attention, you are in stillness.

This is because, unlike thinking, which creates reactions in the body, sensations are simple and ‘in the moment’. As such, paying attention to any or all body sensations will calm the attention down.

In fact, it’s a good idea, even when you’re not meditating, to keep breaking your experience down to sensations. Every so often, as you move through your day, bring your attention back to basic sensations.

In this, unconditional acceptance is essential. Keep bringing your attention back to how you feel rather than what you think about how you feel. This will slowly acclimatise your attention to the habit of feeling rather than thinking and make meditation easier.

I hope this has been helpful.

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LINKS

Meditation the Journey

recent-007” 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.

Cristopher Bennett

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.

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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.’

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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.
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.
That’s stillness.

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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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Mindfulness and Habits

IMG_6714Roger – I meditate every day and I think it helps my life. But I’m told by my teacher I should be mindful as well as meditate, and I’m not that sure about how they link up together. Wondering if you could shed some light on that.
Thanks
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Mindfulness is more important than meditation.
Though meditation certainly has benefits of its own, it is only through mindfulness that we can transfer the skills we’ve learnt in meditation into daily life.
So meditation practice is a bit like a workshop – a set of tools we use to develop and hone the ability to be mindful in our life.So before we look at mindfulness, let’s look at meditation – the first stages .

Once we sit down to meditate, the first thing we do is take our attention into the body – to feel what the body is telling us in its own language – to listen to it unconditionally, without judging whether we like it or not.

The body speaks to us with sensations – which we’re usually too preoccupied with the business of life to listen to. But now, as we sit quietly with our eyes closed, we notice all the sensations we’re usually not aware of – tensions, itches and aches as well as various combinations of sensations indicating emotions we’ve not had time to feel.

On suddenly feeling all this, our first reaction might be ‘what’s wrong with me’, but we have to remember at that point that we cannot change if we do not first know. And that’s what’s happening. The body is telling us what we usually are oblivious to.

So now we know what we feel, our next job is to see if we can let go of the most obvious tensions – to settle the body down and create a relatively calm environment where we can meditate.

So we pay attention to the tensions we’ve found and give the muscles permission to let go. Some sensations and tensions resolve themselves as we pay attention to them, while others take some time, but at some point the body is settled and calm enough to begin practice.

The next step is to take the active part of mind, our attention, to the breath and rest it there. And we know as we do this, that our attention will struggle because it is not used to staying in one place. But in the light of that understanding, we’re very patient. So each time the attention flits away from the breath, we gently bring it back to re-settle it, and we keep doing this until it has gotten used to being there. This takes a while – but with practice our attention gradually settles down.

The next step is we become more specific about which part of the breath we pay attention to. Our intention is to calm the attention enough so it can happily rest on only one small part of the breath – either the movement of the belly or the sensations around the nostrils.

Again this takes a lot of practice – largely because we have to find a balance between trying too hard and not trying hard enough. If we try too hard, we either drift into an unconscious state or our attention becomes hyperactive and uncontrollable. But if we don’t try hard enough, our attention drifts all over the place, usually back to its usual playground of dreaming and thinking. So in focussing on the breath we’re looking for a balance between too much effort and not enough.

The middle way.

Now, throughout this whole process, we’ve noticed our attention is constantly being pushed and pulled by a mind that is more used to being the centre of attention. Like a petulant child, our mind keeps pulling the attention back to itself by using the old lures of dreaming, worrying, fantasising and so on.

So, we use the various meditation methods to keep teaching the attention to let go. That’s what the methods are for – they’re tools to help the attention let go of all the tricks the mind plays so we can keep bringing the attention back to the breath and the body – where it can calm down and learn to be still.

So why is it so important for the attention to be still?

Well, that’s because it’s our attention that generates all the excitement and tensions in mind and body. It’s the attention that ties us up in knots. If we didn’t pay attention to all the thinking the mind naturally generates, we wouldn’t be disturbed by it. But it’s because we do pay attention to all this stuff, that all the thinking and reactions have so much power – and this kind of stressful excitement affects the body in many ways, creating hormonal changes, muscle tensions, fear reactions and so on.

So when we’ve finally learnt to settle attention down, and it’s still and calm on the breath, in the space that appears, our mind and body naturally unwind themselves and relax as the stress hormones are processed. Given stillness, the mind and body, being naturally self healing, self adjusting organisms, healing themselves in whatever way is needed.

But more than that, as the unwinding process happens, the other  effect is, our mind acclimatises to a new paradigm. The more we practice meditation, the more we learn we don’t have to think about everything.

We learn that before we think, we know. We slowly develop a new relationship with an intuitive intelligence much more in tune with our life experience than the thought reality we’ve always lived in. The result is, we think less, but know more – and the effect of this over time is, our attention softens and merges back into awareness. And that’s when the mind and body become more interconnected.

As we become more aware of what is happening in the body, it in turn becomes more responsive. And that’s when meditation evolves into mindfulness.

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Okay, so lets look at mindfulness.

Superficially it’s simple. Mindfulness is when mind joins with body, in real time. No thinking or imagining – no scanning forward or back in time. When we are mindful, we fall into the real-time experience of our body, and our life – sensing it all as it happens NOW.

No thoughts or reactions or judgements – just knowing what is happening as it happens.

This kind of ‘present moment awareness’ is what meditation practice trains us for. In this, mindfulness and meditation support and reinforce one another. When we meditate we are practising the skills we need to be mindful. And when we practice mindfulness in daily life it makes it easier to slip into meditation whenever we want.

But more importantly – mindfulness helps us evolve. Mindfulness helps us to change what we are.

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Most of us live mindlessly. Our lives are so densely packed with activities and distractions, we often forget we’re even in a body and a life.

Think about a typical day in the life on an urban human being.

We wake up and maybe check our mobile phone for the news or turn on the radio or TV. Perhaps then we cook breakfast while thinking about what we’re listening to, then we drive to work while listening to music, or to the radio, or chatting with a friend. Throughout the day we do our work, which these days almost always involves thinking, analysing, calculating and juggling complex information. Then we drive home listening to the radio, maybe go for a run while listening to music, then chat with our family while eating dinner, then watch television and go to bed with our mind still whirling with all the thinking it’s been absorbed in throughout the day.

This is the life we’ve been trained for. From the day our mother and father began teaching us language – then school, university and work, we have been trained to spend almost our entire lives in our head while our body obediently does our living for us. We live in castles of thought, and except for occasional moments like when we’re making love, or experiencing something exceptional or shocking, we’re almost completely estranged from the lives we’re actually living.

Effectively, we’re passengers in our own lives.

Maybe a thousand years ago, when most of our life was spent doing physical things – planting crops, building, hunting, finding our way through forests and jungles and across deserts – we lived in the real time experience of our life. We had to be mindful because it was essential to our survival to ‘be here now’ – to be aware of changes in the weather, of animals and reptiles in the forest, and where to find what we needed.

But now our survival needs are different. Everything we need in the modern world is in head-space. And that makes us very susceptible to habits which have become dysfunctional. Living in the groove of our habits and estranged from our body and our life as we often are, we  don’t feel the subtle tensions of dysfunctional habits until it’s too late.

In the disconnect we’ve become used to, between mind and body – that’s where most of our dysfunctional habits breed – depressive illnesses, anxiety, over-consumption, addiction and so on – all of these things are physical and mental habits that we never noticed until it was too late.

We see it all around us – people who have become sick, addicted, or mentally and physically rigid as they age – entrenched in habits they never noticed until it was so powerful it owned them.

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So now lets look into habits, and how mindfulness can help us change.

Habits are sequences of remembered actions and thoughts which, once formed, fall into the unconscious. Once there, they function automatically – triggered by certain circumstances, they act themselves out in the same sequence every time without us needing to pay attention to them. Left to itself, our body does everything according to these conditioned habits.

For example, when we drive a car.

If you think about it, driving a car is an extremely complex set of action sequences. Yet, once our ‘driving habit’ has been learnt, we are entirely capable of driving through the densest traffic while thinking of other things, and reaching our destination without even remembering what actually happened on the way.

And so it is with most of our life – we eat, work and take care of the business of each day, usually while our attention is elsewhere.

Some habits we choose, and the work for us, like my example of driving a car.

But other habits are more pernicious – they arise stealthily from the natural vicissitudes of our life as our mind/body ‘learn’ certain reactions which gradually become habitual – particularly emotional habits, where childhood experiences have created anger or sadness or frustration. As childhood is left behind and the experiences suppressed or consciously forgotten, these unresolved reactions often evolve into habits of anxiety, depression, or addiction of one kind or another.

Everyone knows the maxim, ‘practice makes perfect’. So it is with our habits. The more they are allowed enact themselves in our life , the stronger they get. So if we are un-mindful of the subtle encroachment of certain habits on our life, by the time we reach middle age, we can find ourselves becoming overpowered.

And so it is with many of the things we regard as illnesses – they begin as subtle inclinations and idiosyncrasies in our youth, but as we age and they go on enacting themselves, they evolve into anxiety and panic disorders, chronic depression, insomnia, binge eating, drugs and alcohol addiction and more.

All of these disorders began as subtle twinges of need in the body, and inclinations in the mind, which we obeyed over and over again. Each time the twinge arose we would allowed the habit to enact itself, largely because we weren’t really present enough to withdraw permission. We were elsewhere – living in head-space, oblivious to the twinges and quiet whisperings of our habits as they drove us. And what made the problem worse is, the more we ignored the signals our body sends us, subtle as they are, the more we became unconscious to them.

And that’s when the habits began running us and our lives.

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When we practice mindfulness, we develop an intimate and present relationship with our body sensations as they occur – we learn the language of our body and the way it uses sensations and subtle tensions to get us to act when a habit has been triggered.

It’s only with this kind of knowing that we can take action to weaken a habit – simply because we can spot it coming before it becomes to strong.

To illustrate, I’ll use an example.

I had a client, Neil, who had a habit of binge drinking – he wasn’t alcoholic in any pathological sense. His life habits had just channelled him in such a way that his entire social life and sense of belonging pivoted around alcohol.
“I’ll be passing a bottle shop or a bar, and suddenly I’d find myself buying a drink. I never meant to … I’d just find myself in there. And all my drinking friends were there, so one thing would lead to another and next morning I’d wake up with a splitting hangover …”

So, as Neil began meditating, I emphasised that his practice should not be restricted to the two half hour sessions he was already doing during the day.

“Keep bringing your attention into your body during the day. Feel what you’re doing as you do it. As you walk, instead of leaving your attention to wander about in the mind, bring it into the body – feel the body walking. Instead of just letting your habits pull you through the day, with your attention wandering in and out of head-space, pay attention to what you’re doing as a real-time physical experience. Know what you’re doing as you do it.”

Neil enjoyed meditating, but he found using mindfulness throughout his day very difficult.

“I keep forgetting,” he said. “The day sort of cascades and it’s difficult to keep remembering to be aware.”
I said, “That cascading effect happens when your habits have taken over. So you’ve got to keep on interjecting, so to speak. Keep pulling your attention into the automatic flow of the habits and taking command. Over time, this itself will become a new habit, which will over-ride all the other habits.”

Gradually Neil found it pleasurable to ‘be in his body’. And he discovered he could feel habits as they arose in his body.

“It’s an uncomfortable tension that I feel,” he said. “Like a spring getting tighter and tighter. Then I notice the thoughts ‘naturally’ coming up – ‘ooo, time for a drink’ or ‘a glass of wine would go down well’. And that’s when I automatically begin heading for a bar and ordering a glass … a perfectly choreographed procession of urges …”

Neil could feel the mechanic of what was happening inside him, as it happened, in real time. So now he had choice.
Where before the habit led him by the nose, now he could choose to not obey. And each time he refused to obey the push of the habit, he won back control of that part of his life. But it took a long time – because as he described it, ‘the perfectly choreographed procession of urges’ was so subtle and strong.

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So the practice is as I said – in the same way as we pull our attention into the body during meditation, and concern ourselves with purely physical events in real time, we do the same thing in our daily life.

Keep pulling your attention out of your head and into the body – notice the physicality of whatever you do – your posture, your muscles working, the sensations as they occur. Take an interest in what your body tells you, and work with it to adjust things you notice are out of balance.

Notice how the habits arise reactively. Sometimes it’ll be sensations in the body followed by ‘thought propaganda’ – as the conditioned mind tries to get you to enact what it thinks will relieve the tension you feel. Other times it’ll be thoughts which trigger the tensions and excitement in the body compelling you to act.

Whichever way it happens, if you’re mindful of what you’re feeling and what you’re doing, you’ll notice the habits arise, and be able to relax around them – and most importantly, resist their call for you to act. The more you resist, the less powerful they become. And slowly, you become the master of your domain.

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LINKS

The Breath, Only the Breath.

IMG_0266-001In my audio course, and in some of the posts I’ve written for this blog, I’ve spoken at various times about emotions and pain during meditation, and described methods for dealing with these things. And this is all well and good – when pain or emotion becomes to powerful it distracts us from the breath we need a method to deal with it.

Trouble is, I’m hearing about people trying to use these methods as their central meditation method – as a kind of self administered therapy to exorcise whatever emotions and anxieties that haunt them.
This distortion of meditation practice, in which we use methods almost as weapons against parts of ourselves we don’t like, is unwise because it arises from fear – fear of aspects of our own self – which runs counter to the mental qualities we’re trying to build in meditation of equanimity and acceptance and surrender as primary conditions for letting go and allowing stillness to arise.

So in this post I’m going to review meditation from the bottom up and clarify the role of the breath as both the foundation and central pivot of meditation.

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While meditation is certainly therapeutic, it is not meant to be ‘a therapy’. It’s not about fighting parts of ourself or trying to create the new self you think you should be.

It’s about being still. That’s all.

Do that, and nature will do the rest. Once we’ve learnt how to let go of everything other than the breath, in the stillness that occurs, the innate self healing mechanisms of mind and body find their own equilibrium and balance in their own way. There is no need to do anything other than that – no need for meddling, or trying to use the methods to change yourself. Just stop and use the methods to pay attention to the breath and stillness will give you everything you need.

Sounds good – except for one thing. We have great difficulty with stillness, because we’ve never learnt how to do it.

Unlike every other creature on the planet, who when there’s nothing to do, does nothing and is blissfully happy about it, we cannot stop. Even when we’re sitting alone, in silence, our attention is flitting everywhere, creating internal chattering – getting bored, frustrated, worrying, anticipating, fantasizing.

Even when we want to be still we can’t do it. For a lot of us being physically still is torture – we need activity, entertainment, a radio going or music, drugs, gossip, television – anything to distract us from a mental and physical environment that is so foreign we’re terrified of it.

This is how our modern culture has made us.

It glorifies activity, dynamism, competition, yet totally ignores stillness – even denigrating it, calling it ‘laziness’, ‘stagnation’ and so on. Our culture has trained us to convert our entire life into information and take action – even if the action is something as stupid as worry.

It encourages us to be constantly scanning ahead to the future, or behind us to the past, and reacting to everything. Politicians, advertising agencies and the media are devoted to tweaking our attention – attracting it, provoking it, anything to make us react. Because they know, if they can get the right reaction from us – trigger the right thoughts, the right mix of emotions – they can control what we do – buy a product, do a job, elect a government, go to war, whatever.

This is modern life.

So it’s entirely understandable that when it comes to meditation – which is about stopping and being still – mentally and physically still, and being happy to be still, we can’t do it.
Which is why we’re the only creature on earth who has to learn how to meditate. Cats don’t need to meditate – they know. So do dogs, fish, birds and everything else. Everything else lives with stillness except us.

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Most of us consider the mental jitteriness we live with as normal, because we’re all doing the same things and suffering in the same ways as as result. There is a perverse sense of community in that.

Nevertheless the constant reacting exhausts us, because we get no peace. Our mind rarely gets the space to clear itself and our body never gets enough of a pause from the constant excitement being generated by the mind, to heal itself and let go of accrued tension.

As I said before, this is a madness other creatures on our planet don’t have. They slip from action to stillness in a heartbeat, whenever they want. Whenever they need. The cat chases the mouse, eats it, then sits and goes still until another mouse appears. Stillness to action, action to stillness seamlessly – always relaxed, in the moment and aware.

It’s this same ability we’re creating in meditation. Not therapy.

We’re learning to be able to be still whenever we choose. And to that end, every method of meditation is simply another strategy to help coax our mind to accept stillness. To get to know it, and feel comfortable enough with it to be able to slip into it in a heartbeat. Just like a cat.

And it’s our attention that is front and center in this endeavor. Because it’s our attention that is the problem.

Awareness is not the problem – awareness simply ‘is’. Awareness knows things – hot, cold, up, down, danger, rightness, wrongness – bare sensations. Bare existence, moment by moment. Awareness knows these things, but has no reaction.

Sensations are not the problem either- they’re simple – sort of like binary code. Either on or off. They come and go according to nature and change.

It’s only our attention that creates the reactions that disturb us. When our attention is drawn to something we’re aware of, or a sensation, it generates a reaction – we like what it’s found or we don’t like it – all of which creates anxiety, whether pleasant or unpleasant. It’s all anxiety of one kind or another. Suffering.

Whatever problem we have, if we look right down the chain of cause and effect, we find the dysfunctional habits of our conditioned attention, and the distorted sense of self it’s created, which accepts anxiety as normal.

So in meditation, it’s ONLY our attention we training. And in this training, the breath is incredibly important, because the breath is the instrument we use to train the attention.

And all the peripheral methods, however therapeutic they may seem, are only meant as temporary strategies to help our bristling, hyperactive attention learn to have a calm relationship with the breath, where it can be still.

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In the meditation method I use, the breath is all we need.

The breath is the core of meditation.
The breath is the path into stillness.
There is no other path. If we pay calm attention to the breath and let everything else go, we naturally become still. That’s all.

And why?

Well, the breath is the only consistently recognizable and constant phenomenon we have in our life, where our attention can rest without having to think, or evaluate or react . Because the breath is simple – it’s always been with us and will always be with us. It is regular and automatic, yet immediately recognizable, with none of the reactive triggers that other sensations create. That is, we neither like it or dislike it.

It’s just the breath,

This is a perfect place for the attention to rest and learn to be still. So, with training, as we keep encouraging the attention to stay on the breath, it gradually learns it has an alternative place from the storm of life – a place it knows is always there, where it can rest.

As the relationship between the attention and the breath deepens, the attention eventually grows to like the breath, and make it its home. This is essential to learning to meditate.

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Of course, a lot of things get in the way of the making of this skill – because that’s what it is – a skill. Our attention is not used to being still so it keeps darting away to all the distractions it’s used to – thinking about things and building reactions.

No stillness there.

This is where the peripheral methods come in. When a particular obstacle arises, and interferes with the building of the skill, we use one or other of the peripheral methods to help the attention come back to the breath and get used to staying there.

The most obvious example is the method I teach known as ‘mental noting’. We use mental noting to assist in the process of letting go of distractions which get in our way. Or we use another method for pain, or the multi-point method when our attention is too fidgety and energized to work with.

But only temporarily. All of these methods are temporary – even mental noting. We use them until the relationship with the breath has been established and is strong, at which point, we resume the central method of paying attention to the breath.

And eventually, after a few years of practice, we even let go of the breath – but that’s another story.

For now, in this evolving skill of being still, all methods and their variations are simply temporary tools to remove obstacles from   a moment by moment relationship with the breath. And though these methods are indeed therapeutic, they are not intended as therapy. So please don’t make any single method a central pivot of meditation.

For now, the breath, and only the breath, will take you to where you need to go.

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LINKS

Fail Gladly to Succeed

Just found this wonderful interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates on the writing process, in which he says: “I always consider the entire process about failure …”

Like with any skill, I also believe this to be true about meditation.

The process of apparently failing is also, paradoxically, the process of succeeding. For this reason, accept the difficulties as the path you walk in meditation, and they cease to be difficulties. We fail and we keep on failing, right to the point when we succeed, which always comes as a surprise. And then we fail again.

In this way failing disappears, and there is only the path to success.