Sensations and Suffering

A wonderful, and quite forensic breakdown of the how sensations become suffering., and the role our conditioned reactions play in that transition. Essential viewing if you’re as fascinated by the processes within Vipassana meditation.

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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.

Alan Watts – The Mind and Worrying

I’ve always found Alan Watts inspiring to listen to. When he speaks it sets off little explosions of insight in my head that feed my practice. In this video, he’s speaking about worry, and how it feeds on itself, and how meditation and mindfulness help.

(Audio Courtesy of Alan Watts.org alanwatts.org)

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Love Your Pain!!

Roger's Iphone pics 076-001Most people, as they go through the process of learning how to meditate, pass through a number of stages, some pleasant, some unpleasant. And no matter whether pleasure or pain, all these stages are good.

These stages arise naturally as your mind acclimatizes itself to the strange and wonderful environment of stillness.

You’re teaching yourself the skill of being still. To be still in mind, and still in body whenever you choose. You’re learning to sit and let go of your reactions to everything. Surrendering the mind and body to their own processes while ‘you’, the meddlesome aspect of mind you call by your name, go still.

More importantly, you’re learning to be happy to be still – to be able to sit still without getting bored, or worried, or impatient or anxious – which are our usual reactions to being still.

So it is that, as with learning any skill, as the mind and body slowly acclimatize themselves to stillness, together with all the feelings that come with it, you will struggle sometimes. Which is what the meditation methods are for – to help you pass through struggle in all its forms as easily as possible.

But for the methods to work, you must accept struggle as an inevitable and integral part of the training.

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So what do I mean by struggle?

Well, think about all the things that annoy you in meditation – periods of over-the-top thinking, aches, itching, restlessness, boredom, frustration and even pain. We tend to regard these things as impediments in meditation. We think when these things are happening that ‘something is wrong’ with the way we’re meditating, and we wonder what we are doing wrong – because ‘meditation is not working’.

Not so. These apparent disturbances are not wrong. They are right. They are a natural result of mind and body learning to adapt to being still, just as muscular aches are a natural result of weights training in a gym. Indeed, the disturbances we experience during meditation are an integral part of the training process.

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One would think stillness would be easy. After all, we only have to stop.

Our dog and cat can do it, and they take great pleasure in doing it. But for us, stillness is very hard to do.

To the average modern human being, even the idea of being still is utterly foreign – even threatening.  In the busy world we’ve created we’ve become acclimatized to action, restlessness, excitement and distraction – not stillness. Stillness has never been a part of how we’ve been taught to live, nor is it spoken about, or given any value or encouraged.

And even if we do get the opportunity to be still – in a doctors waiting room or waiting for a bus, or sitting in our lounge-room, we’re not used to it, and we don’t know how to react to it. Hence the irony that even when we have the opportunity to be still, we can’t do it – it creates feelings of irritation, boredom, restlessness and so on. Unlike every other creature on the planet, who use stillness to rejuvenate themselves throughout the day, we have lost the ability to be still.

Which is why we have to learn how to do it by using meditation.

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There is an immense amount of scientific and anecdotal evidence for how essential regular periods of stillness are for our mental and physical health.

When we are still the mind naturally re-organizes itself, re-patterning recent information and clearing the decks by storing unneeded information into the unconscious. Also, in union with the body, the mind uses the space of stillness to process the emotional reactions it has recently experienced. This cleansing activity appears to the passive meditating mind as errant thoughts, memories and worries that arise and pass away, as well as temporary feelings, patterns of sensations, aches, twinges and pain in the body.

During meditation all this activity appears naturally. And if we allow it to happen, all the anxieties and emotions that cause it will pass away as quickly as they arise. And once processed, we are free of it.

There is a profound union of mind and body that occurs when we meditate. Stillness in mind creates stillness in the body and vice versa. And in that union our muscles are able to let go of retained tension, and our organs have the time to rejuvenate and process the backlog of hormones and any leftover toxins on the blood.

And this cleansing process can only happen when stillness is present. Once we become active, and the mind and body become focused on some external task, this healing process becomes secondary to it’s primary purpose of serving our needs and desires.

The problem with stillness is, people think it should feel pleasurable –  blissful, peaceful, calm and so on.

Maybe once you’ve trained yourself with meditation it will be. But in the beginning stages of meditation, stillness is filled with all the things that arise into it and clutter it up.

So all the things you think are disturbing you in meditation.The boredom, aches, itches, passing memories, worries and squalls of errant thinking – they wouldn’t arise if stillness wasn’t accessed by the meditation methods. These things arise into the space that stillness creates. They are mind and body naturally seeking to throw off mental and physical tensions – to find their own balance. And they need the space that stillness creates to do it.

And this process of ‘throwing off tension’ is sometimes fast, and sometimes slow depending on how complex the problem is – but if you just keep using the methods, like a boat crossing a river you will eventually get to the other side – and any mental or physical glitch you were struggling with, once processed, is gone –  you are free of just a little more of the weight you have been carrying.

So learn to love the suffering that arises when you meditate. It’s the only way you’ll be free of it.

Use the meditation methods to accept and let go of everything as it passes through, because all of it is a part of the healing and rejuvenation that is itself the path to a stillness that becomes increasingly spacious and profound the more you meditate.

The more you practice acceptance of the struggle, and use the meditation methods to remain detached from any suffering that might occur, the less intense the suffering will become.  You realize then, that all the things in your life you thought were problems – of worry, circular thinking, anxiety and physical discomfort – are not problems at all. They’re simply a mind and body seeking balance.

Love your pain and it becomes your friend.

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LINKS

Making Friends with the Bird

Serenity-001Hi Roger,
I have gotten a lot out of your audio course, especially the exercises which I use most days, and I’ve had many peaceful moments meditating. And this is what provokes my question.

I’ve noticed in your blog posts you are more like to talk about the bad stuff that happens in meditation than the good stuff. I know sometimes meditation can be difficult but surely if you want to encourage people to meditate, wouldn’t you want to emphasis how nice it can be to sit peacefully and feel refreshed afterwards? After all, isn’t that why people meditate in the first place?
I’m sure you have your reasons. I’m just curious to know.
Thanks, Virginia.

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Hi Virginia,
I’m sure you’re right – I could, in my posts, speak more eloquently about the ‘good stuff’, as you call it – the wonderful experiences that can happen in meditation. And believe me, there are a lot of wonderful things that happen, some of them so incredible that one can scarcely believe it’s happening. I could write a whole post describing them – but I’m not going to.

Why?

Well, because if I describe all the wonderful things I’ve experienced – if I use these things as a kind of lure to encourage people to meditate, what would it do? It would immediately pique people’s curiosity and get them thinking,’I want some of that’.

And let’s say what I have described is so attractive it does indeed encourage them to try meditation – here’s what will happen:

With everything I’ve described in their head, people will try to meditate, while at the same time looking for the good stuff I have described to happen. But the good stuff won’t happen because their expectations will be continually distracting them from the method they’re using to progress.

And when the things they expect to happen don’t, they get disappointed. At which point most people try harder – either that or they start imagining it’s happening. And the harder they try to make the ‘good stuff’ happen, or imagine it’s happening, the more anxious and tense they become.

And the ‘good stuff’ never happens.

It never happens because they are spending all their energy looking, or imagining and trying too hard to get what they want, which creates a very anxious, self-conscious state which totally blocks the moment by moment flow of meditation process.

As a result, two things happen. They either go unconscious whenever they meditate because, caught between what they want and what is actually happening, their mind gets confused and simply shuts down. (Often when this has happened, these people wake up imagining they’ve been in ‘a very deep state’ – but they haven’t – they’ve simply been unconscious.

Or they get so anxious looking for what is NOT happening, their mind never settles, so meditation turns into an excruciating process of waiting for something that never comes, with the end result that they feel like they’ve failed.

But they haven’t failed. It’s simply that their expectations have interfered with the meditation. Rather than using the methods to surf each moment as it is and learning to flow with whatever happens, they’ve been peering into their eyelids searching for some imagined bliss they expect to happen, but which never does. And it totally messes them up.

So this is why I never give details about ‘the good stuff’. I try to avoid describing or discussing meditation experiences with anyone.

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As I’ve said many times, the experience you have in each meditation is worth absolutely nothing, nada, zilch … zero!

No matter whether you have a meditation session that is transcendentally tranquil or hideously painful and emotional, it doesn’t matter.The meditation process however it comes, so long as you use the methods, will naturally defragment the mind and relax the body regardless of the experience you have – the result being that when you stand up and walk back into your life, you will be in much better condition than before you meditated.

That’s why we do it.

The other thing is, meditating once or twice a day in the storm of distractions that the typical life is, in this situation the meditation experience (good or bad) will always be very subtle.

If you want to speed up the meditation process and experience meditation more intensely, you have to leave your life for a few months and go into silent retreat to meditate more intensively. Because the rule is, the more intensely you meditate, the more intense will be the meditation experience.

So it is that when I go into silent retreat at a temple for a few months and lock myself in a small hut and meditate ten hours a day, the experiences, both of pleasure and pain are very, very intense. And so are the lessons learnt. Meditating this intensively, the progress is extremely fast, and the benefits far greater.

That’s why I do it.

Which is why I strongly recommend you at least try one meditation retreat in your life, at a Buddhist temple, whether local or in Thailand or Sri Lanka.

Or, more conveniently, you can try a 10 day retreat with The Vipassana Foundation at a location nearby, wherever you are in the world. For ten days they will feed you, house you and take care of you while you meditate in silence, with Goenka guiding you – payment is by donation. These wonderful retreats are taught by SN Goenka, a Burmese teacher who I consider one of the most lucid teachers of Vipassana in the world. Though they teach a different method to the one I teach it is extremely effective.
They have centers all over the world, so there will almost definitely be one close by. Just have a look on their web-site HERE, where you can also make a booking. If you’re interested in either of these options or have questions, email me or leave a comment.

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Now my last comment on this question will take the form of a parable. I like to think of the things that happen in meditation – the ‘good things’, as being like a bird landing on my shoulder:

Once there was a man who was in love with a small bird that used to visit his garden. He desperately wanted it as a pet. He used to imagine this bird and he living in friendship, looking out for one another each day and playing together.

So he decided to catch this bird. He got a net and next day he waited, and when the bird appeared he chased it all over the garden – but it avoided his efforts and flew away.

Next he built a trap in the garden, a box balanced on a stick with a pile of breadcrumbs as bait. With a string attached to the stick he waited and waited, but the bird never came. And when it did it wasn’t interested in the breadcrumbs – it liked the berries on a nearby bush

This gave him an idea – next day he sat on a bench with his hand held out with a small pile of the berries in his palm. The bird came and, settling on a branch, contemplated the berries, but flew back to the bush and at those ones instead. Exhausted by his efforts and totally demoralized, the man threw the berries away.

He decided to give up trying to catch the bird.

The next day the garden was bright with sun – the man no longer cared about the bird. He just sat in the shade and enjoyed the day. For a long time he sat, absorbed with little things – the breeze on his face, the patterns of sunlight on the wall of his house, the bees buzzing around flowers, his thoughts and memories as they came and went in his mind. For hours he sat, absorbed in the coming and going of little things around him – his body still, his mind in flow with everything happening in him, and around him.

And suddenly the bird landed on his shoulder.

Filled with joy, the man reached up to grab it – but it flew away and once again the man was filled with frustration.

So, once again he decided to stop – to give up trying to capture the bird.

The next day he came into the garden and, like the day before, he sat in the shade to enjoy his day – watching a trail of ants busily bustling over the grass, bright colored flowers bobbing in the breeze, the sensations of air on his skin.

And once more he was surprised when the bird landed on his shoulder.

This time the man didn’t try to grab the bird. He stayed still. Without the man grasping at it, the bird sat down and made itself comfortable.

The man felt great joy. And from then on, he did not wait for the bird, or try to capture it – he simply allowed it to come when it came, and then to go when it chose.

In this way the man and the bird became friends.

Best wishes
Roger

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Beginning To Meditate

colour7Recently I sent out an email to all the people who bought the Practical Meditation Audio Course, asking them if they had any questions, so i could post my replies for everybody. Since then I’ve received quite a few replies. This first question comes from Brian, who asks:

“I think the course you supplied was great and I follow your blog avidly. My issue is that reading or listening is about as far as I take it. Despite my best intentions I ‘skirt’ around the disciplined practice needed – start and then put off when other issues in life arise. I sometimes think the only way I will overcome is via sessions with other practitioners to get some sort of structure and routine.”

Hi Brian,

I think your hesitation is quite normal.

One of the things people forget about meditation is it’s a skill formed a long time ago in a different kind of world to ours. No television or radios or clocks or mobile phones. People’s lives were simple, uncomplicated and leisurely and most work was in tune with the slow natural rhythms of sun, rain, wind and water – farming, fishing and so on. Life ticked along in a timeless way, making it such that meditation was not so separate from the lives people led.

In isolated parts of Thailand, where I’ve trained its still like that. Farmers in their rice paddies, peaceful villages – quiet, timeless and in flow with the flux of nature. Makes meditation easier than doing it in a city. Which is why many of the best temples to learn meditation in Thailand are in the forests, far way from the cities. That’s where the monks are who have reached extraordinary levels of mental development. But you never hear about them because they stay away from the world beyond the forest. They’re not interested in being a part of the environment we live in – this clanking, rattling, electrified world of information, celebrity and money. They avoid it because it’s too hard to meditate in the kind of environment we live in.

But we’re not not monks. We choose to live in this insane, modern world. And that makes meditation a very hard thing for us to do. In our modern world our mind has adapted to a different environment – of noise, languaged thinking, analysis, information, acquisition, entertainment and distractions. Our minds are not used to the stillness, detachment, silence and intuitive flow that’s needed to slip easily into meditation. In fact, for many people, these things make them anxious.

So in our world sitting still to meditate often seems quite daunting. And even if we do push ourselves to do it, it takes time and quite a bit of discomfort to get used to the strange mental environment of meditation.

So what’s the point then? Why meditate?

Well, even though we might struggle and feel uncomfortable with meditation, nevertheless, even with the struggle, a meditation practice inevitably creates a stronger, more resilient mind with new habits that enable us to process life more efficiently.

And why have a more efficient mind? Because in the cut and thrust of our insane and rather brutal world, an efficient mind creates:

  1. Less stress on the body as emotions and reactions are processed more quickly.
  2. A more agile and intuitive mind, not so bogged down in convoluted loops of thinking.
  3. A greater capacity for kindness and joy as the mind becomes more interconnected with the intuitive heart.
  4. More creativity as our thought processes change from heavy languaged thinking to more intuitive flow.

And much more – in short, a meditation practice helps us sail the toxic oceans of our world and live well.

So why is all this relevant to you?

Well as I said, it’s understandable that beginning meditation seems quite daunting. because sitting still with your eyes closed is a very strange thing to do in our culture. Think about it – when have you ever sat still with your eyes closed unless it was to go to sleep. For most people, rarely.

But it can be done – so long as you’re patient and kind with yourself. No need to rush.

So lets see how we can make meditation seem a bit less daunting. 

For a start, whether you begin attending sessions or not is up to you. Many people find them very helpful because the group dynamic helps them settle down more easily. But ultimately everybody has to face up to the fact that sooner or later you still have to face up to doing it on your own. And for this reason, I focus on exactly that, because I have found people who rely on groups to practice become addicted to the group dynamic, and find it very hard to do on their own.

So whether you begin with a group or not, doing it on your own is the challenge you ultimately have to face, so you might as well begin there.

I think a part of your inability to begin meditating is in the way you’re framing it. You seem to be looking at meditation in very workman-like terms – as something you ‘should’ do. Something you need ‘discipline’ to do.

I think with any beginner words ‘discipline’ and ‘structure’ and ‘routine’ are very daunting in themselves. Not to mention totally ‘un-fun’. You’re turning meditation into work even before you’ve started. So I suggest you listen to the Audio Course in a playful way – soak up the information that interests you and see if a motivation grows out of that.

Then, once you feel motivated to try it out, take it easy – just play with meditation for a while. Get to know it in an experimental way.

I suggest you:

  1. Only sit for as long as it is comfortable, and play with all the methods in the Audio Course Package (particularly walking meditation) – if five minutes is all you can do, then just do that.
  2. Get to know yourself in the new and strange environment of your still, sitting body with its eyes closed.
  3. Use the methods to see what happens … with no expectations.
  4. Get to know meditation as a friend.

Hopefully, you’ll begin to experience things that pique your interest a little more, and provoke you to begin the work, or training of meditation, such as it is.

But don’t rush into it.

The training can come later when you’ve explored the methods and gotten to know them, and feel more comfortable with sitting still. Then you can begin pushing yourself to begin training the mind in a more determined way.

I hope this has been helpful.

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Letting Go of the Void

colour8MEDITATION QUESTION FROM AUDREY:
I had only been meditating for a short while before I entered “the void”.

I was meditating in my back yard one night and I guess you could say that I stumbled into it. 😉 I didn’t have a moment of “ah ha” nor did I “scramble”. It felt like an endless hole (hence the “void” lol). My body felt like it didn’t exist. I felt like I didn’t exist.

After I finished meditating, I felt a tremendous peace within myself. Not only with myself, but with life in general. But, what I didn’t realize until months afterwards, was that I was disconnected with everything. I still went about my daily routines like normal, but I knew that nothing really mattered. If I lost my job, it didn’t matter for example. I was in a completely contented place within myself, but only because of that truth. After months of not meditating, I eventually “went back to normal” I guess you could say.

I began researching what I had experienced and came across people talking about “the void” experience during meditation. That’s the only reason I have a name for my experience. I didn’t like it. As much as I enjoyed the peace, I didn’t like the feeling of being disconnected from my reality. I guess my questions are…
How many people experience this form of “the void”?
Is it normal?

P.S. To try to explain better how I felt I will add that I felt fully connected to the universe, therefore I felt fully disconnected to this reality or time or the world (however you want to see it) because I knew how little it all really matters in the whole scheme of things. I’m not sure if that makes any sense or not, but it’s the best way I can describe it.

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Hi Audrey,

The short answer to your question is, in any sustained meditation practice, especially if practiced on silent retreat, the experience of ‘void’ is inevitable as the mind develops an affinity with stillness. But having said that, some people experience it, others never experience it. As my first teacher, Acharn Thawee once said: ‘Some people are ready, some are not.’

But I cannot comment on your experience, because, well, it’s an experience that’s all your own – and it sounds like it was indeed a wonderful experience.

And your reaction of not liking the effect of it is understandable – the effect of causing you to become unconcerned about your job and the life you are involved in can be quite frightening, when we live in a competitive word that depends on us being VERY concerned with such things to survive.

My only comment at this point would be, as interesting as your experience sounds, try not to think about it too much, or speculate, or place value on it – in other words, let it go. Because if you put this experience on a pedestal:  remembering it, savoring it, and expecting it to happen again, you will interfere with the naked and unconditioned mentality you need to meditate – to be still.

So whatever happens in meditation, let it go. Always move on. Never look back.

Because unfortunately, our capacity to hold onto expectations is a habit we have that interferes with our awareness of ‘now’. Expectations are largely connected to our sophisticated memory – as such, when we experience something wonderful and we remember it, our memory can be so vivid we want more.

And in meditation, as I said, this expectation becomes a hindrance, because it interferes with what we’re doing – which is, be aware of what is happening now … and now … and now …

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The only other comment would is about the word ‘void’.  I’m not referring specifically to your post – just generally, the word ‘void’ is a very misunderstood term, implying a state of nothingness, unconsciousness – and all too many people who have fallen asleep in meditation, come out of it thinking that’s the void.

But its not and nothing can be further from the truth.

The void is not a lack of consciousness – so much as a state of awareness so clear, brilliant, unconditioned and un-dualistic, that we lack the language to describe it.

It happens when the attention has finally let go of everything it usually obsesses over, that we assume as ‘common reality’ – of thoughts, reactions, emotions, good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant, form, non-form, right, wrong, up, down … and so on. With the attention happily still and uninvolved, we become unconditionally aware. And this awareness, as clear and brilliant and knowing as it is, has no language nor does it remember or anticipate – it simply is.

Hence all the clichés that arise from meditation – of ‘be here now’ and ‘beingness’ and others. All these clichés describe the void, because indeed, it is a ‘being here now and nowhere else’ experience. But with all its nihilistic connotations, ‘void’ is often mistakenly assumed to be ‘nothing’. But as I’ve described, it’s not nothing at all – in fact, it’s much more than we currently know – it’s everything.

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So, to conclude, in meditation I always emphasise the doing of it. Just do it. Don’t think about it, or wonder about what’s happening, or speculate. Just do the business of meditating each day and meditation will take you to extraordinary places – some pleasant, some unpleasant. But whether pleasant or unpleasant, treat them all the same – like a traveler on an endless adventure, every new experience is simply another bend in the path. Keep letting go and moving on.

And where are you going?

Well, basically, you’re headed toward a reconciliation with pure awareness.

Which is why everything we do in meditation has to do with training the attention to be still – this meddlesome, reactive, thought-generating aspect of mind which usually recived most of our mental energy needs to be trained to calm down and be still when we wish it to be still. Only then does the mind re-allocate its energy to its other aspect – the awareness.

And void will happen.

Thanks for the question Audrey.

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