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

Meditation is Gym for the Mind

 

Lakshmi commented:portraits and stuff 005

“I am new to meditation and I went in with the delusion that at the end of the 20 minute I will emerge with a halo around my head and a “Buddha-like” stillness in my eyes. On the contrary, I can only physically sit still (often times even that is difficult with itches and pains) for 20 minutes and the emotions are all over the place. What is worse, I am my normal self (whatever that is) for the rest of the time..angry, depressed, happy, ecstatic…. I keep wondering if I am doing it wrong. But as I read you, I am thinking perhaps not.

I also read a post where you say why you don’t talk about the benefits of meditation. I suppose I was looking for it, for an affirmation that my life is going to become better with meditating, and what do I see? Just confirmation that well, emotions are not going to go away, and you meditate just…just. Feeling (there, that word again) discouraged. But given that I don’t have an alternate path (medication is not for me thank you), I suppose I must stick to meditation and stop hoping for something good to happen?

I am a little confused. And a bit scared too. But perhaps, that is natural?”

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Hi Lakshmi,

Your comment covered many areas worth writing about, so ​my reply is rather long. Sorry about that. But thank you for asking such an interesting, if complex question

​Before I begin, I was glad to read that you’re NOT going down the path of taking medication. Though pills and chemicals can seem like instant fixes, the long term destruction they cause is just not worth it. When I was a counselor, the most irretrievably damaged people I came across were those who had become addicted to the various pills that their doctors had prescribed for them – from blood pressure medications to statins, to anti-depressants. Drugs taken regularly usually end up being as debilitating as the condition they were prescribed to cure.

Also, I don’t think your problem lies in​ the act of meditation itself.

I might be wrong, but ​I ​sense a part of your problem ​with meditation ​is derived from ​the ​plethora of misinformation about meditation that’s​ floating around, most of it commercially oriented. ​Much of this information, spruiking courses and books, focuses on the ‘meditation experience’ rather than the long term benefits of meditation, painting an excessively rosy picture of how you should feel as you meditate. These expectations of a calm, peaceful experience then confuse the meditator when they don’t happen, creating doubt and confusion.

For this reason I strongly recommend you read my second book on meditation, ‘Love & Meditation’, available as a PDF download from HERE. In that book, I emphasize the long term benefits of meditation, and explain the process, so you know what it happening as it happens.

So anyway, lets look into what concerns you.

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PART I

“I went in with the delusion that at the end of the 20 minute I will emerge with a halo around my head and a “Buddha-like” stillness in my eyes.”

This is a common expectation among novice meditators, largely created by all the new-age blather that surrounds the subject of ‘meditation’. Ignorant people talk about enlightenment as if it’s some supernatural state, bringing bizarre super powers like a Marvell comic character. Also there are all the misinterpretations of Buddhist lore, in which enlightenment is portrayed in a very religious way, as it’s some kind of transition into a god and only those ‘chosen’ in some way can become enlightened.

All very misleading.

Actually enlightenment is very simple, and like any skill or art, it can only become a reality if one practices the skills that lead to it with complete dedication and persistence over a long period of time.

So what is ​this ​enlightenment?

​Like ​any skill or ability, enlightenment (or Nibbana) is ​a set of mental and physical habits​..

Put simply, it is ​a ​mind that has, through years of meditation, deconstructed all the conditioned reactions and habits that most of us are unconsciously enslaved by – social, cultural and genetic – and become pure again​, with a mind that perceives everything as it actually is, rather than as it has been colored by their conditioned reactions.

With this purity of view, desire and fear disappear because they are no longer internally triggered by internal reactions to things. There is none of the hormonal push and pull of desire and fear distorting their view, so their perceptions are always clear of the psychological coloring of emotional reactions.

As such, though their body is certainly subject to the limitations of physicality, the enlightened person is finally free. Free of rage, sadness, elation, greed, jealousy and so on. They are in perfect balance.

Of course, in popular media, we’re bombarded with the ridiculous cliché of the enlightened person being in some kind of elevated, mysterious and very esoteric state – bald men in robes speaking in riddles with super powers.

Not so. Enlightened people are completely unconcerned with whether they are enlightened or not, and have no interest in drawing attention to themselves.

In my decades of training in temples in South East Asia, I have known two monks who were known as enlightened men – one Thai monk, Acharn Thawee​,​ and the other a Sinhalese monk, the Venerable Pemasiri.

To meet these men, you would not have known they were enlightened. They did not talk about it or try to act enlightened. Both were very kind, and felt the cold and heat just like the rest of us. The only difference between them and me was they were totally unconcerned about anything except what needed to be done in each moment. As such, each action they made, and everything they said, was utterly appropriate and uncolored by ego or emotions. They lived to give and create unconditional kindness, not because it made them feel good, but simply because when all conditioned desire and fear is removed from a mind, all that is left is kindness.

To his death my first teacher, Acharn Thawee, both stern and kind, strove to teach the clearest view of meditation that he could. One could say he had so much to live for – but when he died, he shrugged off his life with these words:

“Who is dying? No one is dying. People say, ‘Oh, it’s Acharn Thawee. He is a good man!’ But I know there is no Acharn Thawee​.​”

To have known this extraordinary man is perhaps the most wonderful experience I have ever had, in part because it showed me how mundane and practical enlightenment actually is. And how attainable it is, if we choose to work towards it.

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PART II

Now​,​ the next part of your comment

“… I can only physically sit still (often times even that is difficult with itches and pains) for 20 minutes and the emotions are all over the place. What is worse, I am my normal self (whatever that is) for the rest of the time..angry, depressed, happy, ecstatic…. I keep wondering if I am doing it wrong.”

No, you are not doing anything wrong.

Everybody, when they first begin meditation, experiences discomfort in different degrees, depending on many things – how flexible their body is, what their life experience has been, and what kind of teacher has been guiding them.

Remember – your mind and body are simply bundles of habits – everything about you, from your posture and physical demeanor to your desires and fears, are sets of habits that you have learnt.​ ​And each of these habit-patterns create different noticeable effects.

The anxiety habit creates various muscle tensions that we recognize as anxiety​ -​ as does hunger, desire, elation, fear and so on.And on recognizing each habit, we then have another secondary reaction to it – mental habits driving hormonal shifts in our body that drive us to act in one way or the other.

Most of what we feel is essential invisible to us. ​I​n ​the hustle and bustle of life, we ​do not notice most of our reactions ​because we are ​too preoccupied our busy lives​​ to feel what is happening to us. Our focus is on outer concerns – work, entertainment, ​children, ​sex, ​food, money​ and so on.​ ​​We only notice ​what we feel​ ​if it is very powerful​ – when it​ poke​s ​into the flow of our everyday life​ and we find ourself angry, or depressed or sad or whatever.​

​Not only that, but many of us​ don’t like to feel what is happening inside us, particularly if we’ve built up a lot of unresolved tension and anxiety. ​​This is why so many people use drugs or anti depressants. Others use ​busyness, or ​​ceaseless activity​ or sport as a way of​ not​ feeling how ​they​ actually are.It’s also why some people cannot stand silence, or are constantly fidgeting or working or seeking fun. Essentially they are running from what they feel – running from themselves.

I had a man come to learn meditation once​,​ who in his life was a very successful advertising executive. He told me his entire life had been spent scrambling up the greasy pole of success​ ​until at the age of forty and now he was feeling a little dispirited and tired, so he decided to learn how to meditate.

He seemed quite relaxed as we spoke. But as I led him through the first session, about fifteen minutes in, he asked me if we could stop. I opened my eyes to see he had gone an odd color of ​pale ​green.

”What’s wrong?” I said.

“I feel horrible,” he muttered, then stood and rushe​d​ into the toilet where he vomited profusely.

Over the following weeks, he had terrible difficulty with meditation – nausea, aches, pains, twitching and a lot of emotion, particularly anger and grief. But he kept on going​,​ and gradually all these things passed away, as I had told him they would. Eventually meditation became a more pleasant experience and he was able to sustain a practice which, over the longer term, changed his life.

Acharn Thawee called this phenomenon ‘shedding the layers of the onion’. In this, he likened our self to being like an onion, made of many layers of karma (conditioning).

​​He said, “Just as we call the layers of the onion ‘an onion’, so too we give a name to the many layers of karma that make up ‘our self’. And we think all those layers of conditioning are ‘I’, quite forgetting that all the habits that define us, have been learnt – accumulated in layers, from our descendants, and from our own life experience.

So then we decide to meditate.For the first time in our life we sit down and stop. So the mind, with nothing to do, naturally turns its attention to itself – because what else is there to do?

​​​And being naturally a self organizing, self balancing thing​, like all other forces of nature​,​ the mind​ uses the stillness and relatively empty space that’s created during meditation to begin throwing off all the layers of reactive habits that cause it discomfort.

And what does it find?

It discovers the first surface layer of mind/body – the most coarse. Painful memories we have tried to avoid, aches and tensions we have not had time to pay attention to, and anxiety we have forgotten was there. ​L​​ike an onion, the​se​ outer laye​rs​ are the most coarse and most painful.

​It is these top layers the mind throws off first – the most coarse. And as the mind throws these things off, we briefly re-experience them. Physical tension, anxiety, pain, aches, and emotions are felt once more as they disappear.

Trouble is,  if we have been ​unfortunate enough to be ​stuck with a meditation teacher who has ​created​ false expectations, that we should be experiencing calm and peace​ in meditation​, we can mistakenly interpret this first stage of ‘shedding the layers’ as  something ​wrong. We can mistakenly assume we’re not meditating properly, simply because our meditation experience is not matching​ the teacher’s expectations of calm and peace. We think we’re failing – that we can;t meditate.

But we’re not failing. We’re actually succeeding.

All the discomfort, thought storms and emotions we’re experiencing are​ simply the first coarse​ layers of historic mental and physical tension evaporating – and once gone, we are free of just a little more ‘dark mass’ in our life.

Each time we meditate through a layer of this muck, we create a little more calm and peace in our life – where we want it to be. All we have to do is sit still and keep practicing the meditation method, which, if it is a good method, has been specifically designed to create and assist this cleansing phenomenon.

So here’s the thing- you’re not meditating to have pleasant meditations. You’re meditating to have a pleasant life. All you have to do is keep going. ​The layers will become more and more subtle as you keep practicing. ​

Try to remember, the beginning of meditation practice is the hardest part. It’s hard because:

1. Your mind and body are not used to being still.

2. You are experiencing the most coarse and immediately uncomfortable beginning of the cleansing process that meditation naturally elicits.

3. Being new to meditation, you are filled with doubts as to whether you are practising properly – which tends to create confusion, which in turn creates anxiety – thus adding to your discomfort.

To help you get through this stage I strongly recommend you obtain my Meditation Audio Course. It will help you understand the process of meditation, and help you through it.

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PART III

“I also read a post where you say why you don’t talk about the benefits of meditation. I suppose I was looking for it, for an affirmation that my life is going to become better with meditating, and what do I see? Just confirmation that well, emotions are not going to go away, and you meditate just…just. Feeling (there, that word again) discouraged. But given that I don’t have an alternate path (medication is not for me thank you), I suppose I must stick to meditation and stop hoping for something good to happen? I am a little confused. And a bit scared too. But perhaps, that is natural?”

Lakshmi, just because I don’t talk about the benefits of meditation, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It’s just that I don’t want to create expectations in people​’s minds​ – because I know how destructive expectations can be to meditation.

When you meditate,​ I want​ your mind ​to​ be utterly open to whatever is happening​ NOW​ whether it’s painful or pleasant – and let it go.

I do not want you imagining calm, or waiting for happiness, or wishing for peace, because this will get you nowhere – its the veritable dog chasing its tail.

Good meditation is where you are totally focused on the business of each ​moment ​as​ it’s happening – and the methods are designed to help you do that. So long as you do that, meditation and stillness will take care of themselves over time.

As the famous Zen master said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” By ‘beginners mind’ he means a mind that is absolutely without expectations about what is going to happen.

For this reason, I talk a lot about what meditation isn’t​​. And I try not to talk about what might happen, because I prefer people to discover that for themselves.

In meditation experience is the best way to learn. So the less you think about it, or expect from it the better.

​So​ yes,​ ​Lakshmi​, you must stick it out​.​​ ​You must go through the coarse layers of the onion. You must put up with the discomfort and use the methods to help you sit still and focus, even when your body is screaming.

​Because sometimes ​willpower is​ the only way. As Marlon Brando once said, ‘​Sometimes ​you just got to duke (fight) it out.​’

I take this to mean that sometimes in a life there is no trick or subtle strategy that will help us. Sometimes we just have to ‘duke it out’ – press the foot to the floor and assert our will until we’re in the clear and can relax.

And this does indeed apply to meditation​ when we first begin – and I think it applies to the beginning of ANY skill if you want to be proficient at it. Starting anything and seeing it through always creates discomfort, simply because the mind and body take time to adjust.

​Remember, you’re building a new set of habits with meditation. You’re building a skill. As such, meditation is ​similar to​ any form of exercise, being it running, tennis, going to the gym or learning to swim.The only difference is, meditation ​trains​ your mind, the most important aspect of your life. So in the same way as going to a gym makes the body stronger and more efficient, so too does meditation make the mind stronger and more efficient.

And the benefits?  Well, as I said, it’s better you experience them yourself than for me to tell you.

But one thing I will sa​y is this​. ​

Thirty years ago, b​efore I began practicing Vipassana​ meditation​, ​​I​ was in a very bad way. After years as a touring musician and dedicated hedonist, I ​had the attention span of a sparrow, ​my body was ruined, my creativity was disappearing and I was so chronically depressed I wished for death most days, and needed alcohol to feel normal.

I used Vipassana meditation to rebuild myself – or rather, to give my mind and body time to rebuild themselves. And in the thirty years since, ​I have written four good books​, ​I am healthy and living ​a​ full life​ doing what I love to do. And though some things might create anger, frustration or I might get depressed about something that’s not going well​, it doesn’t last long​ – there seems now to be a foundation of strength, optimism and calm deep within me now, which the poetry of my life dances upon​ – and it seems impossible now, for down times to overcome me.

So I don’t expect meditation to be pleasant. For me it is just ​a​ training ground – ​a​ place I train my mind to ​stay​ strong and resilient enough to be able to​ live​ my life.

​And if pain, or emotion or anxiety arise as I meditate​, ​I ​greet these things as interesting visitors, ​who I’m happy to see, ​because I know it’s better they are dealt with during meditation, than in ​the larger theater of ​my life.

I hope this has been helpful. Let me know if you have any questions.

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Riding the Storm During Meditation

IMG_7793In the early ‘80’s a friend of mine began practicing a popular form of meditation being propagated by a famous Indian guru and his followers. This group had centers all over the world and my friend had been paying a lot of money to be taught a method which entailed focusing one’s attention on a mantra (a circular sequence of words or sound repeated in the mind) in order to coax his mind into ‘the alpha wave of peace’.

He was always talking about how wonderful the alpha state was and how blissful he felt when he meditated. At the time I didn’t meditate, but it sounded pretty good.

And it seemed to work. My friend was always smiling a lot, hugging people and encouraging everyone to try meditation.

‘It’s great,’ he said. ‘I don’t get angry anymore. It’s amazing! I just feel really calm and …and almost sorry for people who get angry.’

Two weeks later, my friend attacked his girlfriend in the kitchen of their home – she was hospitalized and so traumatized by the suddenness of her boyfriend’s violence she took out a restraining order on him. When next I spoke to him he’d given up meditating and was taking prescribed anti-depressants.

I asked him what happened.

‘I just exploded,’ he said. ‘She was teasing me about an ex-boyfriend and right out of nowhere this incredible rage picked me up and next thing I knew I’d lashed out and she was on the floor screaming.’

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Like my friend, a lot of people choose to meditate for the same reason a lot of people take anti-depressants. They don’t want to feel anymore – well, not the bad stuff anyway – the anger, sadness and despair that nags at so many of us. They just want to be free of it all, while at the same time they want the ‘calm’ that is so reverently spoken of when we hear about meditation – the ‘bliss’ that is meditation’s holy grail.

So they use meditation methods the wrong way. They use the methods to hypnotize themselves into a comfortable oblivion, thinking it’s an elevated state, when it fact it’s not – it’s simply a temporary and dangerous oblivion.

This kind of oblivion is dangerous because they’re practicing not feeling.  And if they do this enough, they lose touch with what they feel. And they think that because they don’t feel the sadness or rage, it’s not there.

But it is.

And one day something provokes that hidden rage/sadness/despair and they explode – often with unsettling consequences for everybody.

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Ever since meditation came to the west from Asia to be transformed from a spiritual practice into a commodity, it’s been polluted by misconceived notions and images – partly from ignorance, but more usually to sell badly taught meditation as an easy panacea for our Western psychological problems.

To this end various shyster meditation teachers and new age gurus have exploited our misconceived ideas of meditation, using key words to sell it to desperate people – words like ‘calm’, ‘peace’, ‘enlightenment’ and ‘oneness’ – preying on pervasive feelings of anxiety and loneliness in the community. You’ve probably seen the images of blonde women dressed in white sitting full lotus in front of a setting sun with their faces blissfully turned up to the sky. All designed to sell the impossible dream of meditation as an instant panacea for life’s problems.

And for sure, an consistent and efficient practice of meditation will alleviate anxiety and open up the mind to more intuitive aspects of intelligence – but the key word here is ‘practice’. So the dream is real, but you have to work for it, like anything else. And the benefits that arise are not necessarily inherent to the meditation experience, so much as they gradually appear in life as a result of meditation practice.

But the way meditation is commonly sold, it’s as if calm and enlightenment are inherent aspects of meditation itself – that all one has to do is sit and channel your mind into a single point and voila, your life is changed. The dream appears!
So people buy the product, and they try it out – and fail, because no-one has told them that it takes consistent practice and many stages of development for the dream to appear.

So, in their keenness to have the instant dream they were sold, people compensate by imagining it’s ‘working’. They imagine they’re ‘cured’ of the despair and anger they might have felt. And they try to make the dream come true by unconsciously acting it out. Perhaps you’ve met them – meditators mimicking the ‘look’ of enlightenment – the smug knowing smile and self-consciously loving demeanor, the loose-fitting pastel colored clothes, quiet voice and enthusiastic agreeing with everything while subtly adjusting it to their own view at the same time.

In this, they’re projecting a carefully constructed and very self-conscious characterization of how they think they should be, rather than what they are, perhaps in the unconscious hope that if everyone else believes they’re calm and enlightened, somehow it will become real.

Please forgive my cynicism, but I’ve met a lot of these people and they usually turn out to be either of two kinds – either passive aggressive fakers who, like my friend, eventually reveal themselves by exploding into sudden and mysterious rages. Or worse, they are so hopelessly hijacked by the voodoo of whatever guru they’re so desperately following they’ve become ghosts in their own lives.

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Thing is, it’s understandable, this eagerness to make the dream come true because, especially with meditation – because it’s so easy to be convinced by the misinformation. The bastardized mythology of meditation permeates so much of our commercial media – the Lifestyle pages and New Age magazines it’s hard to not be affected by the beautiful dream it sells.

Because we want to believe it. We want to believe that unearthly calm and tranquility is possible from as little as 20 minutes sitting. We want to believe that the profound happiness described in the brochures and Lifestyle columns is attainable if we just pay our money and follow the guru.

And we bring this yearning to meditation and try so hard to make it happen. We try to feel the calm and peace we think we’re supposed to feel. And we act out the happiness we’ve been assured is there for us.

And most dangerously, we try not to feel the anger, sadness and despair that modern life arouses in us.

Because after all, we meditate. The very declaration ‘I meditate’ almost forbids us to feel anger and sadness and darkness. We have to be happy – because otherwise it’s as if we’ve failed in some way. What did we pay all that money for? The meditation ‘isn’t working’. In some strange way, we feel we no longer have the right to feel the darkness of our self.

And what makes it worse is, if we do express anger or despair, our non-meditating friends might smirk and point the finger, saying: ‘Hang on, I thought you meditated …’ and we have no recourse.

We fear the feeling of failure that arises when we’re not getting all the stuff we’ve read about, that should happen – the relaxation, bliss and enlightenment. So we look out for these things, and we avoid the feelings of anger and sadness and despair, thinking that if we avoid them enough they’ll disappear.

And we might join a meditation group and meet other meditators, all of whom seem so nice, so calm and happy – which creates even more pressure as we listen to them describing the sublime states of tranquility they reach, some seeing colors and lights, others assuring us they can levitate and reach a ‘higher state’, or feel the ‘energies’ shifting as they move through their kundalini.

So much bullshit – half-baked notions borrowed from books and imaginings, that to the beginner can be so misleading and intimidating.

I call it ‘the theatre of meditation’ – where meditation has become more about the look than the substance. To me, as common as it is (particularly in meditation groups) this kind of ‘meditation theatre’ is a huge hindrance to efficient meditation practice because it absolutely reeks of non-acceptance of what is actually happening, and denial of what we actually are – both core requirements of efficient meditation.

And that’s what it’s all about – efficient meditation – not necessarily pleasant meditation, or calm meditation – but a meditation practice that creates the insights we need to change.

And the first and most important insight most people get if they are meditating efficiently, is not tranquility and calm – but the opposite. Most people’s first insight is about how un-calm, angry and anxious they actually feel.

And after all, why would we expect it to be any other way? In a world as brutal and fiercely competitive as the one we live in, it makes sense that we feel periods of anger and sadness and despair. I’ve been meditating for twenty five years and I still feel the entire gamut of these things and sometimes, in extreme circumstances, I feel quite depressed by the things that happen.

But meditation has taught me to accept the reality of my humanity – because that’s what it is. We are not monks, or nuns, or angels or saints – we’re human beings in a very flawed and often inhuman world. So we should accept that our reactions to this environment are entirely logical.

As R.D. Laing once said: “Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”

So, while for sure, sometimes as you meditate, you will experience periods of extraordinary tranquility and calm and many other interesting phenomena, that doesn’t mean you are now magically transformed. You’re just as likely to experience pain and anxiety next time. Or anger, or sadness.

Meditation is like the ocean, always changing according to its own natural processes – sometimes stormy, sometimes calm. And the meditation methods are the boat which you use to float and flow and navigate the currents and moods of this ocean as they arise.

When it’s sunny, you raise the sail and lay back and relax. And when it’s stormy, you pull out the oars and work to ride the waves until they calm. In meditation there are methods for everything you might experience – and that’s why you practice. You practice to learn the methods. To learn how to ride the storms, and flow with the calm, both in meditation and by extension, in life.

So please don’t cling to transitory feelings of calm or tranquility when you meditate. Use the meditation methods to let them go, just the same as you do with everything else, no matter how magical they might be. They’re not the purpose or goal of efficient meditation.

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One of the hardest things to accept in a meditation practice, particularly in the beginning, is how it reveals the truth of what we have become. It’s a preeminent characteristic of meditation that when practiced well, it will open up an awareness of all the things we’ve been hiding from or suppressing in ourselves. In the space that’s created when we sit still and close our eyes, everything we are will naturally arise.

As one of my teachers, Phra Manfred said:

“Meditating is like stripping a banana tree of its leaves – first you cut through the outside leaves and they are coarse and hard and it takes time to strip them away. But you keep meditating and the layers beneath get softer and softer until you reach the vulnerable inner layers which are very soft and delicate. 

“So you keep meditating, stripping the leaves until you find you have stripped the last leaves away. And what do you find? The banana tree has disappeared. There is no banana tree. The tree was only the sum of its leaves. In the same way, what you think is you, is only the sum of the self-created layers you have accumulated over time.”  

I’ve been meditating for a long time and these layers make themselves known every time I meditate. I know them now and it’s always interesting to see what new events will arise, and take up the challenge of using the methods to flow with them.

Sometimes the intensity of these feelings and tensions will take me by surprise, and what’s notable is how I can never predict their coming or their intensity. When I sit down to meditate, I might feel perfectly fine – not a glimmer of what’s to follow. And then they arise, usually as a characterless anxiety in a part of my body, which might gather pitch and even become quite painful. Sometimes even tears will come as I meditate. Nothing dramatic – simply a spontaneous body reaction to some transitory emotion.

Or I might feel a powerful tension appear deep inside my core, like a tightly wound spring. As I observe, it might resemble anger. Then it might change to sadness. And as I observe it more, it might change to some nameless excitement, or fear or whatever. I’m not concerned with what it is, but simply the way it changes. Because this ever-morphing anxiety has no story. It’s just a mind and body processing residual tension from a life, that’s all.

Of course, if I wanted to I could ascribe a lot of stories to these passing emotions. I could ascribe the sadness to my childhood, or anything currently floating in my head. Same with anger. One can always find a reason for why one feels something – but it doesn’t necessarily mean the reason is right. It’s just a story we create for it, that’s all. The real truth of any emotion or feeling is the pattern of tensions and bare sensations as they are felt in the body, that’s all.

So when I meditate I don’t allow what I feel to take on a story. That’s what the meditation methods are for – to peel away the commentary and mess of thinking we imbue everything with, and know it as it is. Because only the feelings matter. And accepting a feeling as it is, is the first step to it resolving itself.

The strange thing is, as intense and uncomfortable as an emotion might have been as I meditated, the moment I finish, it’s gone. Instantly gone, like the illusion of sensations it always was.

I have learnt to love this process – I love watching the flux and flow of my inner ecology and knowing that each mess of orphaned tension and anxiety, if I just accept and observe it, will eventually resolve itself and disappear, and I will be free of one more layer of accumulated life-crud. As Acharn Thawee said:

“All suffering that arises in meditation is just old karma (effects of old causes) passing away. So don’t struggle with the suffering. Know it when it arises and be glad, because once it’s gone you’re free of one more layer.”

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Free: A Most Inspiring Book

downloadWhen I went to Thailand in 2000 to do the first of many silent retreats to train in Vipassana meditation methods, I was awash with information – things I’d read, accounts of other people’s experiences, different methods and views. And all of it made a mess in my head, such that I had a lot of trouble committing to any particular way or path into Vipassana. And in this initial venture into Vipassana, drifting from method to method as I was, and mixing and matching methods, I was not making progress at all.

I should have been committing to one method and advancing that skillset, and then, from a position of relative skill, experimenting if I needed to.

But I was impatient and my mind was very un-trained by my previous life as a musician – so, for the first month of my retreat I kept making a mess of things and getting very despondent about it.

In this, I think I was a very exasperating student for the monk who was teaching me, Phra Manfred – a wonderful German monk whose patience and strict guidance was so valuable to me at the time.

So one morning during the interview on the verandah of his kute, after so many fruitless arguments with me as he tried to get me to focus, he slid a small booklet across to me, saying: ‘Read this, it might help’

It was only a small booklet, the pages burred and creased with use. I read it in an afternoon, and it changed everything.

I had never heard such clarity spoken about the Theravada Buddhist way, and the place of meditation in it, and indeed, in life itself. The book is not about meditation per se, so much as the attitude behind it, and it gave me what I needed, and inspired me to give myself to the skill I was being taught. From that point, this book formed a core to my practice, and indeed, my life.

It’s not about religion – if anything, unlike many Buddhist monks, he was extremely unreligious in his view of Buddhism. It’s simply common sense and I strongly recommend it to anyone – not just meditators – it is a message of incredible wisdom and inspiration from a man who inspired Thailand itself for almost a century.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE BOOK

ABOUT BUDDHADASA BHIKKU (from Wikipedia)

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (Thai: พุทธทาสภิกขุ, May 27, 1906 – May 25, 1993) was a famous and influential ascetic-philosopher of the 20th century. Known as an innovative reinterpreter of Buddhist doctrine and Thai folk beliefs, Buddhadasa fostered a reformation in conventional religious perceptions in his home country, Thailand, as well as abroad. Although he was a formally ordained ascetic, or “monk,” having at the age of twenty years submitted to mandatory government religious controls, Buddhadasa developed a personal view that rejected specific religious identification and considered all faiths as principally one. His ground-breaking thought inspired such persons as French schooled Pridi Phanomyong, leader of Siam’s 1932 revolution, and a group of Thai social activists and artists of the 1960s and 70s.

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 (thank you to Bhuddanet (http://www.buddhanet.net) for making this copy of the book available.

Feeling Before Thinking – Always

Hong Kong Sept 2012 162As much as I have covered this subject in numerous posts, I keep hearing meditators complain about thinking: ‘I cant stop thinking,’ seems to be the main complaint and obstacle in meditation.

And its understandable. After all, in a culture such as ours in which we’re constantly encouraged to think from waking to sleep, in a lifetime of thinking about things – indeed, where our very survival depends on us thinking, calculating, anticipating, worrying, wanting, chatting and so on … it would be a bit ridiculous to expect our mind to suddenly stop thinking just because we’ve sat down to meditate.

Because our thinking habits have become insanely over developed – such that even when we don’t need to think, our mind is still mindlessly labelling, classifying, judging and reacting – all on its own. As I say in my book, ‘Happy to Burn’: ‘Our mind is like a hyperactive hand that never stops moving – even in rest it still twitches and moves on its own.’

So it’s quite a logical response in meditation, to try to use meditation to ‘stop the thinking’,

So let’s, once more, look at what thinking actually is, and where it comes from and how to deal with it.

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Thinking is never the source of itself – it is always caused by something else – a sensation or feeling, an event, an inspiration or an emotion. Thinking always comes after these things – either as an identifier, or label. On their own these initial thoughts are benign and have no effect on the body – they’re simply the mind noticing things and labeling them then forgetting.

Which is why I say it’s okay for spontaneous thinking to arise in meditation. This kind of pure mental flow of thoughts arising then passing away has no influence on the body – it’s just a mind idling like a motor in neutral.

But if we react to these initial thoughts with more thinking, a body reaction is created. And that happens when the mental noticing of what has just occurred attracts other thoughts from the subconscious. That’s when we find ourselves actively involved in what’s just happened, judging it, remembering similar things, evaluating whether we like it or not. And the longer this goes on, the more momentum the thoughts get – and the more the body becomes affected by what we’re thinking.This is a reactive cycle – patterns of thinking creating feelings in the body (hormonal reactions), which create more thinking and so on.

Worrying is a classic example of this. And this process is largely automatic – a mind trying to find solutions to what it perceives as a sudden imbalance away from its preferred state of equilibrium.

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Trouble is we spend so much of our life thinking, we think it’s the primary cause of everything. Which is why we try to stop it when it’s annoying us in meditation.We forget that thinking always comes second to something else.

The initial thought follows a physical event. It’s triggered by something that’s happened in our awareness, whether it is a sensation, an intuitive ‘knowing’, an instinctive reaction or a surprise event. And as I said, if we let the thinking rise up in the mind then pass away without bothering to react to it, it disappears like a dream. But if we react to that thought a reactive cycle begins, where our body gets excited in one way or another, which provokes more thinking.

And right there, it’s the feeling in our body that becomes the cause of the thinking. Not the initial event that made the first thought, but our reaction to what we’re thinking about – and the emotion that comes with it, however subtle, of irritation, frustration, anger, sadness or whatever.

If there was no reaction, feeling or emotion, there would be no thinking.

As such, particularly in meditation, if thinking is a problem, we should go to what is now causing the thinking – the feelings or emotions, not the thoughts themselves.

We go to the feeling-reaction, as sensations. Focus our attention there, and the thoughts will slowly fade away.

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For example, let’s look at fear.

Let’s say we have to sit for an exam tomorrow, and we’re absolutely petrified of what’s going to happen.

On noticing that first thought ‘I’m petrified of this exam tomorrow,’ our attention becomes fixated and more thinking arises from the unconscious, and a reactive cycle begins. And the longer our attention remains fixed on that general theme, the more the compatible thoughts will be dredged up from the unconscious – associated experiences from the past: ‘that exam I failed in high school’, ‘the test I failed in primary school, failure, failure. failure … and so on’

Our body is now humming with a cocktail of hormones, of which adrenalin is the main component, which energises the worrying mind. With our mind now a swirling storm of thoughts along the theme of ‘failure’ we are creating a fictitious ‘tomorrow’ in our head and reacting to it continuously – all of which is energising the body reactions … which energises the mental reactions and so on.

This is a reactive cycle.

And because we mistakenly think everything begins and ends with what we think about it, we keep hopelessly battling the mind, trying to stop the thoughts. But as long as the body keeps reacting, our mind will obediently keep delving into the unconscious and free associating, trying to find a solution. And it will keep on doing this, for as long as our attention remains engaged with the thinking.

So trying to stop thinking in meditation, or any other time, is like trying to stop a fire by waving at the smoke – a total waste of time and energy. The only way to stop a fire is to ignore the smoke – go to the fire and pour water on it.

Divert your attention away from what you think, to what you feel.

Work with the bare sensations in your body – relax the tensions that have been created. Feel the anxiety as physical tightness and work with it. Pour all your attention into untangling this tightness and thr thoughts will lose power and fade all on their own

Working with how we feel does two things:

1.   It gives your attention something practical to do, and diverts it away from the thinking.

2.  It unwinds and soothes the physical reactions that are energising the thinking.

Because you are NOT paying attention to the thoughts, they lose momentum and coherence – which lessens their ability to cause body reactions.

With less body reactions, less hormones are released – so the feelings slowly subside.As the feeling of fear subsides, the mind naturally calms down and begins thinking other thoughts

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So there it is – whenever you have a problem with thinking, the trick is to look past it at whatever physical effects accompany it. Look into the body and find out to where the thoughts are being provoked and pay attention to that.

Use the meditation method of Mental Noting to note the sensations as you work with them – it helps to keep the mind focused.

And be prepared to find emotions you didn’t expect, provoking the thoughts.  For example, sometimes thoughts of boredom or frustration are actually coming from anger or sadness. So go with whatever emotion or set of tensions are there in the body, and keep tracking them with the mental notes as they change.

And be patient. Depending on how intense the body reaction is, it can take time for the organs to metabolise the hormones that are in play.

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Acceptance is Everything

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An audio course participant wrote:

‘Hi, I’ve just begun meditating and I’m finding it quite a hellish experience. I can’t seem to find the calm I imagine should be happening. I end up sitting there waiting for the alarm to go off so I can stop. It’s very uncomfortable. Any suggestions?’

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 Life is activity.

We’re always reaching for something – something to do, something to achieve, somewhere to go, to make something happen. It’s our nature. To hunt, to create, find and cling to what is ours. This is our habit which we’ve built throughout our life and had instilled in us by our parents and society. Everyone can remember how one time or another we’ve been told, “don’t be lazy”, “the early bird catches the worm”, “up and at ’em” – all these aphorisms that have followed us through our life, always nagging and nudging us forward, making us slightly anxious if nothing is happening.

So it’s natural that when we sit down to meditate we will bring this action-habit with us – which is what turns meditation into such a difficult thing for us to do. Because meditation is the opposite of everything we have learned.

Where in our daily life we take action, in meditation we cease action.

In our lives we reach for goals and cling to outcomes, possessions, comfort and so on – but in meditation we let go.

We let go of everything.  We let go of everything continuously.

So in the meditation environment, sitting in a motionless body for long periods of time, every life habit we’ve ever learnt just doesn’t work. So what do we do? In line with our habits we try harder to ‘make meditation work’. And that doesn’t work even more! Our mind having nothing to do, spins on the spot with anxiety and our body tightens in response, creating aches and pains that only get worse the longer we sit. We feel trapped between our anxious mind and our hypersensitive body and our natural response is a sense of existential claustrophobia that makes us want to leap to our feet and run screaming from the room.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating – though a lot of what I’ve just written here is what students in the past have described about their initial experiences with meditation – all because they bring the same habits to meditation as they use in their lives. And these habits just don’t work.

But we don’t know what else to do, because when have we ever been taught to let go?

When have we ever been taught to stop? To be still?

Never.

So it’s a very big ask to expect our conditioned mind and bodies to meditate.

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So then, what are we to do? Our habits are so ingrained and so powerful, to fight them is fruitless. To expect to suddenly be able to be still after a lifetime of grasping and compulsive activity is absurd. Yet this is exactly what we expect when we meditate. We expect to somehow, magically, be someone else – someone calm, unconcerned and tranquil. And in bringing this expectation to meditation we deny and blind ourselves to the very reality we’re trying to change – the reality that we’re not calm unconcerned and tranquil.

So here is the first key to meditation – we must throw away our expectations.

As our conditioned mind and body struggle against meditation, we must accept things as they are. If there are aches and pains in the body, then we must accept them. If the mind is suddenly flooded with worries, memories and thinking, we must accept it.

In each moment, this is the first lesson of meditation – to accept things as they are.

Acceptance of things as they are is the first step toward change. Because it seems to be a law of nature that nothing can change unless it is first accepted as temporary reality. For example, in the practice of psychology, it is well known that one of the most pernicious aspects of depression is the patients resistance to it – their non-acceptance of depression actually extends and intensifies the symptoms. Only when depression is accepted, along with the pain and anguish it engenders, can the process of change begin.

Same with pain. It’s ironic that the more we resist the intensity of pain, tensing up around it, trying to resist its burn, the more ‘painful’ it becomes. Yet if we do the opposite and accept it fully, and relax around the reality of pain, it fades very quickly.

So too is it with the difficulties that arise out of our mental and physical resistance to meditation

The more we accept and fall into the apparent mess of thinking and physical discomfort that seems to be arising, the more quickly it passes.

Acceptance is an amazing thing.

And it cannot happen if we don’t first throw away our expectations of what we THINK should be happening. Because expectations are illusions of desire – projections of what we want, that blind us to what is actually here right now. And we cannot accept what is here right now, if we are blind to it.

So then … meditate with no expectation. Meditate like you’re on a journey into the unknown, cutting your way through jungle with no idea what surprises lie just ahead. And whatever happens, whether good or bad, accept it wholly, and deal with it as it is.

This is what the Mental Noting method is for.

As we notice each new surprise as it arises, we note it. A sound, we note ‘hearing’. A pain in our hand, we note, ‘pain’. A rising sense of sadness, we note ‘sadness’, or of happiness, we note ‘happiness’.
And each note signifies our awareness of what is happening now, as well as our a complete acceptance of it.

And what do we notice happening as we note these things?

We notice they begin to change – to either fade away or change into something else. The sound disappears, the pain fades away, the sadness dissipates, the happiness changes to a calm tranquility.

And the more we note what arises, the more we forget we are ‘meditating’ and lose our Self in what we’re doing. We become absorbed in what we’re doing and stillness appears like a surprise.

And when it first appears, perhaps our first reaction to it will be ‘Oh!’

At which point it will probably disappear. So the next challenge is to develop a relationship with stillness when t appears. Because it is like a timid bird that has landed on our hand.

But that’s another story … keep practicing.

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Clearing Away The Crud

37540_10150238430970171_3558999_nHi Roger, Sometimes when I’m meditating and my mind is running away with itself and I find myself sitting with my mind all over the place.

But I’ve noticed during these times, though I am not meditating, this sitting with my mind seems to have very beneficial effect.  As it’s happening I notice myself feeling different things –  sometimes happiness, sometimes sadness and sometimes anger.  But these emotions don’t stay .. they come and then go. And I feel like I’m wandering a landscape of myself and everything I am and it seems very cleansing.  No matter how sad or happy or angry I get , when I open my eyes after an hour or so of sitting I come out of it feeling very refreshed.

So my question is, can you explain what is happening.  And tell me is what I am doing a waste of time or wrong in some way?  Or is this a valid way of meditating.

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When all is said and done, the most basic prerequisite of meditation can be distilled to one word:

‘Knowing’

So long as awareness and knowing is present, what you’re doing will be beneficial, and meditation will eventually work itself out.

But having said that, there is something missing from what you’re doing which is also very important.

In this passive floating from one thing to another, you’re not training the mind to be more skillful with its own processes- which is a primary part of the practice.  As such, though what you’re doing is beneficial, and restful – it is not affecting change to the mental habits and reactions which cause suffering.

Now, bear with me while I explain …

In life as it is, we are taught to win, to hold on, to get, to create and so on.  In short, we’re taught to accumulate things, not just on the physical plane, but mentally as well. For just as we accumulate money and property on the physical plane, so too on the mental plane, we accumulate mental things – habits, both good and bad; memories both pleasant and unpleasant and so on.  These things collect in the mind like crud in an engine, affecting the way our mind functions, and our view of life – forming dysfunctional habits that affect our sense of Self – habits like worry, anxiety, depression, negative self view and so on.  We weren’t born with these habits – they were formed from the accumulated crud of a life – and they become a large part of our Self definition.

After all, what is our Self, but a big formation of memories and learned habits in formations within the greater formation we call by our name. Everything we think we are, we learnt to be.  We accumulated our sense of self, picking up new habits all the time – new memories, new patterns of emotion, intellect and so on.

All well and good – but the problem is, we’re always adding new habits and reactions, but rarely removing them.

So after a while, as the crud of life collects, we lose the simplicity and freshness we had in our youth.  With the clutter of past experiences and reactions we’re constantly adding to our Self, our view of life and ourselves becomes over-complex, ungainly and confused as we accumulate fears, anger, sadness and so on.

So then we come to meditation.

Meditation is essentially the act of letting go.  In meditation we learn to let go. We practice letting go of what we have accumulated.

And as time goes by and we practice the meditation methods, this letting go becomes more innate and automatic.  Essentially, the methods help us to build a habit of letting go that prevents the usual crud from building up and altering our Self view.  So we feel lighter and more fresh and our view becomes young again – but with the wisdom of age.

And its a wonderful way to be.

But here’s the rub. In this process of letting go there is one element that is essential.

And that is ‘knowing’.

Because we cannot let go of that which we do not know.

And what does this mean?

Well, to let go of pain, we must first know it – that is to say, we must first feel it – every part of it, in all its intensity.  Only then, as any experience meditation practitioner will tell you, will the mind let the pain go and it will disappear.

To let go of past trauma we must first know it – that is, the memories must first be recalled and the emotions they elicit must be felt – only then will the mind let go and the trauma and it’s effects will disappear.

So ‘knowing’ must always come before letting go.

We must know the true nature of whatever is harming us, to be free of it. .

Too many people forget this. They think they can meditate blindly – by simply chanting a mantra or mindlessly noting, or visualising positive things – they think they meditate without knowing what ails them.

But that’s not meditation.  All they are doing in that instance is burying these unpleasant things further inside their psyche, making it such that, like assassins in the night, these things will attack them in covert ways and sabotage their lives – all the buried rage and sadness, and all the buried anxieties and tensions.

This does not mean consciously thinking about these things, or reacting to them, or imagining them. Not at all.  To wilfully dwell on anything harmful will only strengthen it.

I mean to simply be aware – to know it as it naturally arises and feel it as it is, until it is gone.

And this happens naturally as we practice a good meditation method.  As we train the mind to be more efficient we notice memories, feelings and sensations of all kinds of things arising in our awareness. And our attention wants to go to them, to build them into something bigger, but we use the methods to keep letting them go, so they pass away.

In this, we’re knowing all the parts of our Self, and the accumulated crug our Self is made from, while at the same time practicing the skill of letting go.

That is good meditation.

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Now, as far as I can tell, you seem to be doing one thing, but neglecting the other.

You’re drifting through the landscape of you, knowing memories, emotions, thoughts as they arise and pass away, and in this your attention is basically passive – simply wandering where it will.

This is indeed knowing and letting go and it’s very beneficial – restful and reviving. I do this myself quite often when I take a nap, or rest.  It’s very pleasant and sometimes, if an unpleasant memory arises, a temporary body reaction will occur but as you say, it passes away quite quickly, and when I’ve finished resting, I always feel refreshed.

But it is not meditation.

Because, though for sure it is cleansing and refreshing, you are missing the second essential component of meditation practice – you’re not training the mind, which is why we use meditation methods in the first place – to train our attention to let go in real time – as we live.

We use the meditation methods to build a skill in the mind – to teach it to experience life without accumulating the usual mental crud of our reactions.

In meditation we are building a skill of letting go of the usual push/pull of habits, so they do not accumulate – training the mind to live life like a duck walking in the rain, the water of  life running off our feathers to leave us dry and untouched inside.  A clumsy analogy, but it’ll have to do.

If we can learn to live as a process of letting go instead of constantly accumulating, we wouldn’t need to meditate because life would have become meditation.

So when you’re drifting in meditation – unfocused and afloat in your inner landscape, as I said, you’re only fulfilling the first  requirement of meditation – you’re knowing and letting go of inner crud.

But you are not training the mind to not collect it in the first place.  And this is the most important aspect of meditation.

But, nevertheless, what you’re doing is beneficial. So keep on doing it, while at the same time, gently encourage the mind back to practicing whichever method you’re using, to keep on building the skill of letting go.

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