Don’t Fight to Meditate.

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

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

I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.

Thanks in advance,

Brian

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

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

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

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

And it’s understandable.

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

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

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So let’s go back to the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go to the body sensations. The whole body.

Pay attention to the sensual shape of the sitting body.

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

 

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

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

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

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

I hope this has been helpful.

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LINKS

Louis CK on Mindfulness

I often find the most incisive and concise observations come from comedians. I suppose that’s because to make people laugh, brevity and incisiveness are essential. In this interview, Louis CK starts talking about mobile phones and then moves into a wonderful allusion to mindfulness, particularly when it comes things we don’t want to feel, like sadness.

Well worth watching.

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The World of Worry

10414847_10155846597095171_2268366880859880061_nIn the mid nineteenth century, the word ‘worry’ referred solely to the act of physical harassment, whether of animals or humans – for example, ‘the dog worried at the sheep to herd them into the pen’. 
So it was that, in the pre-industrial time, when watches and clocks were rare, worry was relatively rare. It seems we have acquired the habit of worry with the advent of clocks, schedules, competition and the expectation of achievement and success that came with the industrial revolution.
In this fascination interview with Francis O’Gorman, the writer of ‘Worry – A Cultural and Literary History’ he and Philip Adam’s  look into how we acquired this annoying habit, and its place in our clickety clack modern lives. Well worth a listen.

Neuroplasticity and Meditation

Neuroplasticity is a subject very pertinent to meditation – particularly meditation as consistent practice. Because rest assured, for all the difficulties you might experience as you meditate, and no matter how hopeless you might feel sometimes, the very act of sitting and using the meditation methods to coax your mind toward stillness changes the brain just a little bit more – adapting it to become more able to be still, and intuitive and tranquil within the storm of life.

So I thought I’d put up a few videos to watch about the subject, and reassure you that you ARE making progress.

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Facing What Disturbs You

Oh the Pain

Following is another of the questions that came in, this one concerning an unusual condition that keeps repeating each time Jacques meditates

Hi Roger, I liked your online course and your book but I got a big problem meditating. I have given it many tries but every time I meditate I build up tension in the area between my eyes, top of my nose and bottom of my forehead. If you draw a circle from about 3 to 4 cm with middle point the top of my nose between my eyes that is the area I’m talking about.

This tension gets worse every day and after a few weeks of meditating it stays all day. I is so annoying that I stop meditating all together. I tried to include it, calling it tension, not ignoring it, dealing with it in a relaxed way but no result. I would so much like to start meditating again. Can you help?

All the best, Jacques

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Hi Jacques, I’m going to answer your question in a round about way.

My last teacher, the Venerable Pemasiri, who taught at the Kanduboda Meditation Centre in Sri Lanka, said something to me that pertains to what you’ve described.

I was there for a silent retreat, practicing a method I’d been using for many years – following the breath and mentally noting whatever distracted my attention. But this particular retreat, things were not going well. I was experiencing a strange physical phenomenon that was making the long days of meditation very difficult.

About fifteen minutes into each session, my body would begin to clamp up. It was as if all the muscles were turning to stone – particularly around my shoulders and chest and I’d begin to panic because it felt like I couldn’t breathe. And nothing I did seemed to alleviate it. The solidification of my body would intensify until I opened my eyes and moved, when the rigidity would instantly disappear. But then on beginning again, the same thing would happen again.

At first I didn’t tell Pemasiri, thinking if I just kept noting this event it would pass away like other temporary effects of meditation. But after the second week it had not only persisted, but gotten more intense, such that I was waking up each day dreading the hours of pain I would have to go through.

So at the morning interview I told him.

Pemasiri listened, nodding his head, then prescribed a different method to the one I had been practising. He told me to switch to the ‘Multiple Point’ method (which is a part of the Practical Meditation Audio package you are using – strongly recommended for your kind of problem).

So I began using this method – beginning with my attention on the breath as usual, then switching to the multiple points method as the rigidity began to encroach – moving my attention from point to point around the body until the rigidity disappeared – at which point I’d return my attention to the breath. It worked wonderfully, and eventually the rigidity disappeared and I went back to my core method.

But what is pertinent here is Pemasiri’s reaction when I came in smiling the next interview and thanked him for ‘fixing up meditation.’ I was joking, but he didn’t smile with me.

‘So you are having a good time now?’ he said sourly.

‘Well, the pain has gone,’ I said, a little defensively.

‘And you think this is the way meditation should always be?’

‘Well, no, but at least I can meditate now. Before, all I could do was struggle.’

He sighed heavily.

‘What do you think you are here for?’ he said. ‘To sit with your head in the clouds, feeling blissful and wasting time? What you call ‘struggle’ is the meditation. Struggle is the work. You are training the mind, and the things that make you struggle are the tools you use to develop your mind and make you stronger, so you can find peace in your life. You’re not here to have peaceful meditation. You’re here to create peaceful life. So all the good times and pleasant feelings and sparkly things you think are ‘good’ meditation? They are not. They have no importance at all … they are just what happens in between, when you’re waiting for the real work to begin.’

And its strange because I already knew what he was saying. I’d been practising for over a decade and a half, and I realised I’d forgotten the most important lesson in meditation – that the meditation experience is the least important aspect of it. That the most important aspect of meditation lay in the use of adversity to train the mind – that the still, sitting body is the theatre we use to develop the mental skills we need in life – of detachment and awareness and intuitive wisdom.

Or, in one word: ‘mindfulness’.

So now I was confused – having realised I’d used the multiple point method to avoid an important lesson, did Pemasisi want me to go back to learning how deal with the suffering? I certainly hoped not. But I asked him.

‘No!’ he said curtly. ‘Just as we teach our self not to cling to pleasure, we should not seek out suffering. You must think middle way. Middle way is the key. Neither this, nor that, but in between. That is the lesson you’re teaching the mind.’

‘But isn’t the multiple point method simply a way of avoiding the lesson I have to learn?’ I said.

‘No … your problem was never the suffering. It was your reaction to it. The pain you felt was held in place by your reaction. You were afraid of it. You hated it. So when the suffering arose you paid too much attention to it. This reaction magnified the suffering as you tensed up around it trying to shut it out and make it go away. With this reaction you made suffering out of suffering. So I gave you the multiple point method to distract your mind from its reaction. Without the reaction, you saw the suffering passed away naturally – as it might have, had you treated it with detachment before. You see?’

I did. The lesson was clear – suffering in any form is not our enemy. It’s simply the natural friction of being alive.

Our true enemy is our own self and its reaction to this friction. As is the case with all the ways we human’s suffer:

Like when we get depressed – we get depressed about being depressed. We get sad and react to how we feel by being sad because we’re sad. We get angry about being angry, or anxious about being anxious. In the same way, with physical pain, we tense up trying to make physical pain go away, which only makes the pain worse … and so on.

One of the primary lessons of meditation practice and perhaps the hardest to adapt to, is to remember that meditation is first and foremost mental training – not a nice, comfy equivalent of sleep.

So, as in any life training, whether it be physical or mental, there is a component of suffering. It cannot be avoided – it naturally comes with the change of transformation. Just as any athlete must learn how to deal with pain to adapt their body to their chosen field of excellence, it’s the same in any area where we seek to improve ourselves – any gym-goer, mountaineer or running enthusiast knows they have to deal with the discomfort of adapting themselves mentally and physically.

It’s no different with meditation – suffering cannot and should not be avoided.

The still, sitting body is a boot-camp for our indulged, undisciplined minds, in which we use the stresses of being still with no distractions, as opportunities to teach our mind to let go of all the habits and little addictions it uses to avoid stillness. With these capacities, our mind becomes stronger and more resilient, and more efficient in the way it processes the vicissitudes of life. The stronger and efficient our mind becomes, the more calm and peace appear in our life.

So, Jacques, with regard to your particular problem, the tension in the area between your eyes, top of your nose and bottom of your forehead.

I suggest you use this event as a main object when it arises. .That is to say, switch your attention from the breath, to whatever is persistently distracting you – in this case, the sensations in the middle of your forehead.

And make this a rule.

Never try to meditate past a challenging event that has arisen in meditation. If something is disturbing you, then switch your attention to the sensations of that event. Try to relax the muscles around the event, and use the note, ‘thinking, thinking’ to cut away all the negative thoughts that are arising.

You might find in that instance that the sensations will temporarily intensify. Don’t worry about this – it’s what’s called an ‘extinction-burst’. Any condition, just before it fades away, intensifies into the lead up to its resolution. When it has faded, or become manageable, then you can switch back to the method you have been practising with.

If that doesn’t work, then use the Multiple Points method (Exercise No 12.) and see if the uncomfortable sensations fade away.

Some more points:

1. Try not to meditate in fear of suffering. Try to re-frame your view of each so-called problem that arises from ‘damn I hate this’ to ‘oh, how interesting’ – from ‘obstacle’ to ‘opportunity-to-learn’ .

2. When any problem arises in meditation, use any of the methods I have given you in the Audio Course to see if you can move through it.

3. Don’t cling to an expectation that meditation should be all bliss and sparkly stuff. For sure, there will be pleasure, but so too will there be pain – usually in equal measures. In time, the more you practice, the suffering will become less intense, as will the pleasure. It’s then that you will find a new quality appearing – not pain, not pleasure – but tranquility.

4. Treat everything that happens with the same interested detachment. And keep using the methods to let go and move forward. Always move forward. I hope this has been helpful.

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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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The Perils of Positive Thinking.

scan0016Let’s get it out in the open at the outset. Positive thinking, either as affirmations or visualizations, doesn’t work. And worse than that, these strategies actually have the opposite effect for most of the people who use them.

Ever since Norman Peale’s book, ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ became a world best-seller in 1952, the popular media have been selling the dubious view that ‘thinking positively’ can improve our life and help us achieve success – and more lately, quack science in ‘The Secret’ has been extending this notion to include the idea that visualizing positive outcomes will cause ‘possibilities to manifest’ at the quantum level, and cause desires to become physical reality.

I remember when I first heard about ‘the power of positive thinking’, back in the ‘80’s, when I was going through a hard time in my life, and looking for solutions.

I was at a new age seminar, and the speaker had spent a whole afternoon linking our thought environment to the very stuff of the universe, to convince us that our thoughts affect reality at the most profound level – the particles and atoms that form our reality.In the cause of ‘manifesting’ a reality we desired, we were encouraged to ‘lock out’ negativity – to not hear, or speak or look at any ‘evil’.

In effect, we were encouraged to refuse to feel what we felt if it was at all dark and to purposely turn our thinking into more cheerful channels.

My first reaction was panic – because my innermost thoughts at that time were so dark, and so intensely did I feel this darkness, I couldn’t stop it.

‘Oh my god, what kind of reality am I creating?’ I thought, because no matter how I tried to stop it, the rage and despair wouldn’t stop. And the more desperately I asserted positive thoughts over how I felt, the more my mind mocked me, saying: ‘Why are you asserting all this positive stuff?… oh, that’s right, because you’re so utterly enraged and ruined …”

In effect, I became terrified of my own inner self as it was. How ridiculous – and how destructive, to be split in two like that, trying to assert conscious desires against who I was at that time.  Kind of like a psychic civil war. But that is what I attempted. And it only made things worse. The more I tried to assert a false culture of positivism over my negative landscape, the more depressed and angry I became.

It didn’t take me long to start looking elsewhere for solutions, a journey which eventually set me on the path to meditation. I realized this kind of desperate positivity is actually an insidious kind of emotional fascism, in which we’re encouraged to divide our inner world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, then hunt down the ‘bad’ and try to kill it with the ‘good’. The inevitable result, as with fascism anywhere, is the ‘bad’ becomes empowered by our fear of it, and from secret places within, sabotages everything that’s ‘good’ in our lives.

What’s interesting to note is that almost all the people I met during that time who were adherents of positive thinking never realized the positive assertions they were so desperately trying to manifest for themselves. I meet them every so often, and they’re still mindlessly chanting affirmations and smiling through their angst – and still passing from seminar to seminar, guru to guru, who all basically peddle the same crap. And they still feel powerless and defeated while waiting for their visualizations affirmations to ‘work’.

Carl Jung, in a famous quote, had this to say about positive thinking in all its forms:

‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.’

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Which brings me to an interesting piece of research by psychologists Joanne Wood and John Lee from the University of Waterloo, which verified my own experience.

Recently, in experiments with positive affirmations:

“They asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person.” The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement- but only slightly.”

So let’s sum up their results:

  1. Positive affirmations were favored by people with low self esteem.
  2. When these subjects with low self esteem fixated on a positive affirmation about themselves it almost always made them feel worse about themselves – not better, as expected.
  3. When positive affirmations were used by people with high self esteem, they had absolutely no effect on their well being.

In a follow-up study, in which they focussed on low self esteem individuals, the researchers got half the participants to list only positive thoughts. The other half of the study had to list their negative self-thoughts alongside positive self-thoughts.

The results showed emphatically that low self-esteem participants who were allowed to acknowledge their negative self talk experienced more well-being those who had been directed to focus exclusively on their positive thoughts.

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 So, what does this have to do with meditation?

Well, when I first meet people who want to learn how to meditate I ask them, ‘Why do you want to meditate?’

Invariably their reply includes everything they want from meditation – to be relaxed, to be calm, to be free of anxiety or depression, to able to concentrate better and so on. The list of things people want from meditation is endless.And, for sure, I say, with most things, meditation can possibly help.

But then I give them the twist, which is:

‘If you try to meditate from what you want from it, it won’t work. For meditation to work efficiently, you must first let go of everything you want from it. And most importantly, you must unconditionally accept everything you don’t want.’

In other words, you must let go of your dualistic view of yourself as two parts – positive and negative. And more importantly, you must let go of your fear of what you consider as negative. You must meditate in unconditional acceptance and love of the whole you – positive and negative. Dark and light.

In this you trust that the natural order of the universe is to seek balance – stillness. It’s a bit like a pendulum – if you’re constantly pushing a pendulum toward one side – the positive side, let’s say, it’s only natural the reverse reaction will keep occurring. But if you accept both sides of your Self equally and allow the pendulum to swing to both its extremities, without pushing it either way, it will eventually calm itself and go still.

Meditation is like letting go of the pendulum and allowing it to find its own equilibrium – we cause balance and stillness to happen simply by learning to accept everything as it is, while not reacting to it.

This is letting go. Non-reaction.

So if you’re using affirmations or visualizations to try to create some desired state – whether it’s calm, or happiness, or love or wealth or whatever, though you might well experience a soothing endorphin effect from your imagining, what you’re actually doing is pushing the pendulum – you’re empowering the opposite of what you’re desperately being positive about, by fearing it.

And how do we know you’re fearing it?

Well, ask yourself, why else would you be using affirmations or visualizations? Because you fear their opposite.

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I’ll finish with a wonderful quote from a famous and enlightened Thai monk, Acharn Chah in which he uses the word ‘suffering’ as a generic term to describe everything we consider ‘negative’ in our life:

“If you want to understand suffering you must look into the suffering. The teachings say that wherever a problem arises it must be settled right there. Where suffering lies is right where non-suffering will arise. So if suffering arises you must contemplate it right there. You don’t have to run away. You should settle the issue right there. One who runs away from suffering out of fear is the most foolish person of all. He will simply increase his stupidity endlessly. Just know yourself, this is your witness. Don’t make decisions on the strength of your desires. Desires can puff us up into thinking we are something which we’re not. We must be very circumspect.”

Ultimately there is a profound irony inherent in meditation, and in life itself. And that is, the more we try to escape suffering – with drugs or comfort, or mis-use of meditation methods,  the stronger the suffering will become.

Similarly, the more we try to imagine our way out of suffering with positive thinking, affirmations or visualizations, the more likely it is that suffering will blindside us further up he track, and sabotage us from the secret places we have consigned it to.

So the trick, if you like, of meditation and life itself is:

Never run away. When suffering is present in any of its forms – as emotion, negative reaction or misfortune – turn to it and look into it as sensations. And as you pay attention to the sensations of how you feel, be aware of the story your mind is telling you, but don’t pay attention to it – let it fade away by not participating in it. In this way, you are not asserting the positive – so much as simply choosing not to participate in the negative.

Meditation trains us for this – because in meditation we practice accepting how we feel, while at the time letting go of our reactions to it.

The pendulum left alone.

Naturally finds its balance.

And stillness comes on its own.

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Some extra reading:

‘The Power of Negative Emotion: Psychologists Believe Bad Feelings Produce Success’  (The Age Newspaper)

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