In 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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.”